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Assembly bill would make Washoe County school board partially appointed

By Bob Conrad

A bill making its way through the Nevada Legislature would make some school board trustees appointed versus being elected. 

The bill only applies to the Clark and Washoe County school boards, however. It is a repeated attempt by the legislature to change board structures–attempts that have failed in past sessions.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson cited Washoe and Clark County school board dysfunctions as part of the reason for the bill.

“There’s ongoing debate about how best to structure school boards to best support student outcomes,” he said at a hearing this week. “Advocates for elected school boards highlight the benefits of local democratic political participation, and agency as well as accountability to voters for school operations. In contrast, critics of elected school boards often highlight low voter turnout rates, the impact of special interest groups, and general politicization of school governance as shortcomings.”

Frierson said a Guinn Center for Policy Priorities report found school boards focus little time on student achievement.

“Observing school board meetings across the state in 2018-2019, the Guinn Center found that on average Nevada school boards spent little time, less than 20% of their time, focusing on student achievements or their outcomes,” he said.

However, a Guinn Center study reported that there is no significant difference in student achievement between the two models — elected versus appointed board members.

The bill received passionate but mixed reactions. Some said Washoe and Clark school boards create mockeries of themselves and fail to serve students. They said people are shocked to find that school boards and school districts are not overseen by their local county governments, but rather operate independently.

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Business groups, teachers and local governments support the bill, but the Nevada State Education Association is opposed to the bill.

“We agree more should be done to increase levels of professionalism and collaboration at school boards while also bringing greater accountability and responsiveness to our communities,” an unsigned letter from the organization wrote in opposition. “We offer several proposals to improve the professionalism, collaboration, accountability and responsiveness, while preserving school boards as democratically elected bodies.”

Clark County school trustees also oppose the bill.

“The Clark County School District believes that the citizens of Clark County should determine the qualifications of each trustee, not another governmental entity,” the group wrote.

The Clark County Education Association, the union representing teachers, however, supports the change to their school board.

“Unfortunately I am challenged to see any real functionality from [the CCSD school board] most of the time,” teacher Cheri Raymond-Griggs wrote. “It is beyond comprehension that there are members who have occupied seats on the School Board when they work for agencies in legal actions against large groups of District employees. How can they be impartial on votes pertaining to those employees?”

A high-school social studies teacher in southern Nevada also spoke in favor.

“For decades, we’ve proven time and time again that having only elected officials on there is a recipe for disaster,” said Kenny Belknap. “If you disagree with me that this change is absolutely needed, I encourage you, please, sit through one of the school board meetings from start to finish. I guarantee you will immediately vote yes on this bill.”

“We can’t afford to have some of the distractions and dysfunctions that we have in years past.”

Washoe County school trustees have publicly spoken against the bill.

“Appointed members will cause a geographic imbalance, and appointed members are not beholden to the people of the county. Conflicts of interest will exist, and political games will impact the effectiveness of our board,” said Trustee Andrew Caudill. 

A UNLV study, in response to past legislative attempts to change board structures, found the same as the Guinn Center, that neither structure has an impact on student outcomes, but noted that appointed boards may have greater levels of accountability.

It was the size of the school district, researcher Yanneli Llamas noted, that had more of an impact on student success. 

“The research suggests that the larger a school district, the less accessible the board members are to the community,” Llamas wrote. “This not only decreases accountability, but also hinders communication and cooperation between the school board members and the communities they serve.”

The larger the district, the more removed trustees are from citizens. The larger the district, the less effective they are. Llamas said if larger districts deconsolidate, families have the option of shopping around if they are dissatisfied with large school districts, such as Washoe and Clark.

“While appointed school boards may encourage conditions beneficial for students and parents, school district deconsolidation holds the potential to improve outcomes for those students and parents,” Llamas said.

Fierson was steadfast in pushing the bill.

“In a state where we have one of the largest school districts in the country, we can’t afford to have some of the distractions and dysfunctions that we have in years past,” he said. 

Increasing accountability is the goal, he added. Trustees, if passed, would be appointed after current elected terms expire.

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