There’s an old adage that appears to ring true in Carson City’s legislative hallways.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
For the third legislative session in a row, Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) has sponsored a bill that would substantially rejigger the makeup of the state’s two largest school boards. The proposed legislation, SB111, would replace the governing bodies of the Clark and Washoe county school districts with a hybrid board made up of both elected and appointed trustees.
The bill isn’t a surprise. Kieckhefer sponsored nearly identical versions of the measure during the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions. And, before those efforts, former Assemblyman Pat Hickey sponsored legislation in 2015 that would have authorized appointed school board members under certain conditions.
That same year, former Gov. Brian Sandoval floated the idea of appointed school boards in his State of the State address, saying “Although well-intended, some of these boards have become disconnected from their communities.”
But, six years later, the idea remains just that. So will this lawmaking cycle be any different?
“I think that there is momentum growing, particularly in Clark County, to make a change,” Kieckhefer said.
His bill isn’t the only one addressing the topic. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said he also plans to sponsor legislation that would propose revamped school boards in Clark and Washoe counties and that would include three members appointed by the governing bodies of the respective county and largest cities. The remaining four trustees would be elected in districts drawn by the county commissions.
Kieckhefer’s bill is slightly different. It calls for eliminating the trustee election districts in Clark and Washoe counties and replacing them with three trustees elected at large and four appointed trustees.
In Clark County, the four other trustees would be appointed by the county commission and the governing bodies of the three largest cities (Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas). In Washoe County, the four appointed trustees would come from the governor, county commission and the governing bodies of the two largest cities (Reno and Sparks).
Kieckhefer, however, signaled a willingness to consider other hybrid structures. No hearings for SB111 have been scheduled yet.
But the mere existence of the bill — with another on the way from Frierson — has excited those who want to see drastic changes to school boards while unnerving others who fear such action would overstep the democratic process.
School board elections are considered low-ballot races that don’t generally involve a lot of campaign spending or fanfare. But the candidates who emerge victorious wind up assuming a hefty responsibility — providing policy oversight and direction to the superintendent to make children’s education the best it can be.
Plus, schools are the common touchstone in a community. After all, most people grew up attending school. Now, some send their children to school. And others work at a school.
All of these elements combined can make education a hot-button issue, sometimes putting trustees in the crosshairs of the constituents they serve and the school district they help oversee. But the Clark and Washoe school boards — like others around the nation — have had their fair share of controversy in the form of disputes with the superintendent, in-fighting among trustees and social media flare-ups.
During a Clark County School Board meeting earlier this month, Trustee Katie Williams — one of three new trustees elected in November — sent a tweet, seemingly aimed at teachers, about schools reopening. The tweet concluded with, “This isn’t about safety, this is about you never being satisfied. Go back to work, or find a new job.”
The tweet immediately stirred emotions and, by the next day, fellow board member Lola Brooks wrote this reply: “Trustee Williams, please don’t tweet during meetings and let’s agree to focus on moving forward together while recognizing the immense challenges reopening schools brings for students and staff alike. All trustees should remember this.”
Another new Clark County trustee, Lisa Guzman, found herself at the center of an ethics complaint lodged by the Clark County Education Association soon after she was elected. Meanwhile, there has been simmering tension among existing trustees over their adherence (or sometimes lack thereof) to a balanced governance model, which the board has been receiving training on the past few months.
Rewind the proverbial tape a bit further, and similar issues popped up in previous years as well. The Washoe County School Board had its own headline-grabbing moment in January when one of the board’s new trustees, Jeff Church, took issue with a statement made by Superintendent Kristen McNeill condemning the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to a report from This Is Reno.
Despite occasional tensions or public-facing dustups, both school board presidents — Linda Cavazos in Clark County and Angie Taylor in Washoe County — said they oppose any move away from a fully elected governing body.
Referring to parents and their children’s education, Taylor said, “That’s the most precious thing in their lives in most cases. That inherently can be emotional.”
Cavazos and Taylor said adding appointed members would strip community members from having a say in who represents them. They also raised questions about how the appointments would be done and whether that would further politicize board positions that are supposed to be nonpartisan.
“I don’t feel that would take us in a good direction,” Cavazos said.
Deanna Wright, who spent 12 years as a Clark County school trustee representing a Henderson-area district, also isn’t a fan of moving to a partially appointed board.
“It’s a power play,” said Wright, whose third term ended last year. “It’s the (legislative) body saying we know better than another elected body about what needs to happen. And I just fundamentally think that’s wrong.”
Given prior similar bills and ongoing school board issues, the renewed push to overhaul the state’s two largest school boards didn't come as a shock, though. Wright said part of the problem lies in a general misunderstanding of a school board’s role as a policy-driven body that shouldn’t be getting into the weeds of operational details.
But she acknowledged that hasn’t been very well communicated by current or former boards or the district itself. Ultimately, the situation could compel lawmakers to act on the proposed legislation.
“I think if the board does not change what they’re doing now, they’re going to end up with this,” she said, referring to a hybrid school board.
The concept of a board with appointed members isn’t unprecedented. Across the country, school boards come in all shapes and sizes, with appointed or elected members, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States.
While hybrid boards are not as common, Nevada already has an example of one — the State Board of Education, which has four elected voting members, three appointed voting members and four appointed non-voting members. The Legislature passed SB197 in 2011 to make that change.
Mark Newburn, who has served as both an elected and, now, appointed member of the State Board of Education, wrote an op-ed for The Nevada Independent last year advocating for a similar governing structure at the local school board level. He noted that the state board’s appointed members include a student, parent, teacher, industry member, district superintendent, school district trustee and a member of the Nevada Board of Regents.
“This new structure gives the state board representation and deep education expertise, resulting in a more effective policy and governance team,” Newburn wrote. “While the state board is larger than the board of trustees, its meetings are more efficient, without all the drama.”
Proposed legislation to create hybrid school boards in Clark and Washoe counties appears to have backing from the business community and some parents. The Vegas Chamber is “very much in favor of the bill,” said Cara Clarke, the organization’s vice president for communications.
“Our K-12 education system in Clark County, being one of the largest in the country, has unique challenges and leadership challenges,” she said. “By diversifying the board with both elected and appointed (members), you can bring different types of expertise and experiences into that board that can perhaps broaden perspectives and highlight maybe some new ways to do it.”
Erin Phillips, president of Power2Parent, said the advocacy organization leans in favor of a hybrid school board, though wants to hear bill testimony before taking an official stance. Power2Parent and its members, she said, have long been frustrated by what she described as an “unbelievably dysfunctional” board that seems more beholden to employees than it does to parents and students. (The organization has been a strong critic of the Clark County School District’s decision to remain in virtual learning mode for so long, and is planning a “Back to School Protest” Thursday at the school board’s first in--person meeting in nearly a year.)
While Phillips said she has some questions about the appointment process, she considers it an overall better idea that could lead to a more effective board.
“Everything is done at such a snail’s pace, they don’t really accomplish much at a meeting,” she said. “ A lot of things are kicked down the road.”
Cavazos, who became the Clark County School Board president last month, acknowledged the challenges that have plagued the governing body the last few years and said better communication and transparency must be a goal moving forward.
“Let’s just say I don’t think it helps when there are meetings that appear to get bogged down with personal agendas or personality clashes as opposed to actually getting the business of the school board accomplished,” she said.
With more than three months left in the legislative session, the fate of the school board-related bills won’t be known for some time. But the conversations will overlap with a critical time in the history of the nation’s K-12 system, as educators determine how to reverse learning loss associated with the pandemic.
Reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.