Critics say appointed members would bring partisanship, not improvements, to school boards

14 March 2023

Fueled by concerns about headline-grabbing troubles at Nevada’s two largest school district boards, lawmakers are trying once more to create appointed seats on those governing bodies. 

The first version of AB175 would have changed three of the seven seats on each of the Clark and Washoe County school boards from elected positions to appointed. 

But during Thursday’s Assembly Education Committee meeting, sponsors Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblyman Toby Yurek (R-Henderson) presented an amendment that would retain the seven elected trustees on each board, and instead add four nonvoting appointed members to the Clark County School Board, and three nonvoting members to the Washoe County School Board. Each board would need to have one of the new nonvoting members appointed by its county commissioners. 

The remaining Clark County appointments would be made by the county’s three largest municipalities — Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson. Likewise, the remaining Washoe appointments would be made by Reno and Sparks city officials. (The Washoe school board already has a nonvoting student member.)  

Yurek and Bilbray-Axelrod, the chair of the Assembly Education Committee, said they see the proposed appointments as a way to bring more voices, professionalism and expertise to the Clark and Washoe school boards, which they argue in turn will improve student outcomes.

“It’s our intention and hope that the addition of nonvoting members would enhance the depth and quality of discussion and discourse without compromising the voice of representative democracy,” Yurek said. 

School boards’ functions include hiring and managing superintendents and setting the vision, goals and performance standards for their districts and schools. 

The creation of hybrid school boards as a way to address community concerns has long been debated in Nevada, particularly with the Clark County School Board, which has been criticized over issues such as unprofessional behavior by some trustees and its firing and rehiring of Superintendent Jesus Jara in 2021. Still, similar efforts have been unsuccessful in past sessions. 

The discussion was revived again last year during an interim education meeting, as well as in draft legislation filed by former Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead (who lost her seat in the 2022 election). 

This latest iteration drew strong opposition from across the state, including from the presidents of the two school boards that would be altered by the bill. 

“School boards in Nevada are nonpartisan, which is essential to our service to our communities. This bill grants partisan bodies control and influence [over] our process, which is not in the best interest of our governance,” Washoe County School Board President Beth Smith said in a written public comment

Clark County School Board President Evelyn Garcia Morales shared similar sentiments.

“We have to continue to trust our voters and the democratic process to elect their local representatives on school boards and really any efforts [to] dilute an elected body with an appointed member or a consultant distances voters and their representatives,” she said during the meeting. 

Assemblywoman Selena La Rue Hatch (D-Reno), a Washoe County School District teacher, questioned why her local board was being targeted by the bill. 

“Our board is functional, its functionality is in fact increasing, and I think it is because of democracy that it is increasingly functional because our voters rejected extremism in our last election,” La Rue Hatch said. “So I would just like to know why Washoe is being included in what seems like mostly a Clark County issue.”

The Washoe County School Board has gone through its share of tension, particularly involving Trustee Jeff Church, who was almost censured in 2021. Back then, Assemblywoman Angie Taylor (D-Reno), then the board president, said that he had made statements that could be considered misinformation and that he promoted lawsuits against the district. 

Meanwhile, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) teachers union was part of a coalition of community groups that argued in favor of hybrid boards during the 2022 interim meeting. CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said allowing municipalities to make school board appointments gives them “skin in the game” because education systems are an integral part of the economy and workforce.

“So in that context, I think that they’re going to be very much vested in this process to bring support and assistance to the school board elected trustees,” Vellardita said during the meeting. 

The city of Henderson is also in support of the bill.

“The city council receives numerous constituent concerns regarding our education system with no direct means to address them,” Henderson lobbyist Nicole Rourke said. “By appointing a school board member, municipalities can ensure that leaders of the school districts have the experience necessary to guide such a large organization and be responsive to parents and families.”

Assemblyman Gregory Koenig (R-Fallon), who previously served on the Churchill County School Board, asked why rural school districts were not included in the bill if appointed members are so beneficial.

“I was in Churchill and it was a train wreck. We were a mess,” he said. “We could have used another adviser to come in and maybe give us another opinion.”

Dylan Shaver, a lobbyist for the Washoe County School District and former City of Reno official, questioned just how much value appointments by municipalities would add to school boards.  

“​​I don’t think we do ourselves any service by grossly overestimating the amount of thought that goes into those appointments, and we can leave that at that,” Shaver said. 

At least nine states have hybrid school boards, but the vast majority of states elect all of their school board members, according to the Education Commission of the States.

In 2015, the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities submitted a written public comment for a hearing on a similar bill that stated school board composition – whether “elected, appointed or hybrid” — bears “no significant difference” in student achievement. A 2020 UNLV study found that “the type of school board does not seem to affect per pupil spending” and research “does not strongly suggest that either type of board makes a substantial impact on student outcomes or board member accountability overall.”

But Mark Newburn, former president of the Nevada State Board of Education, points to that governing body as proof that a hybrid model can be effective when implemented properly. In 2011, he said lawmakers voted to convert the then-troubled and ineffective state board from a fully-elected board to a hybrid board, with four elected voting members, three appointed voting members and four appointed nonvoting members. Those appointed members include a student representative, a school board member, a school district superintendent and a higher education regent. 

“The appointed nonvoting members are an essential part of the success of the State Board,” he said in an emailed statement to The Nevada Independent. “When I was an elected member of the State Board, I relied heavily on the expertise and perspective of the appointed members.”

Newburn said he thinks the bill might get less pushback if sponsors specify the perspectives and backgrounds they are looking to get through the appointments, such as an educator, a parent and an industry leader, similar to what the state board does. 

Garcia Morales, however, argued that the functions of the state education board and school boards are too different to make a fair comparison between the two. 

The post Critics say appointed members would bring partisanship, not improvements, to school boards appeared first on The Nevada Independent.

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