Why are Clark County School District trustees so eager to circumvent Nevada's open-meeting laws?
Earlier this year, CCSD trustees Carolyn Edwards and Sheila Moulton were tasked with identifying officials from local governments interested in participating in a community linkage meeting with the school board. Community linkage meetings are public meetings held by the school board whereby specific individuals are invited to attend and give input to the board, bringing insight to education issues having cross interests.
Edwards reported back to the board on "the community linkage" she said she'd had with the Clark County Commission and the Henderson and North Las Vegas city councils.
"In conversations with the county," said Edwards at the board's February 26 meeting, "… and with a number of other people, the opinion was expressed that it would be much easier for us to facilitate the communication if we don't do it as a full board meeting, and they don't do it as a full board meeting.
"And so the request was that we … would have two people who would go and meet with one or two of the council or commission members," said Edwards. Through such maneuvering, she noted, the school board and the other bodies could be confident of not being "in violation of open-meeting law."
School board members made the policy explicit that they would each hold meetings with assigned elected officials outside the public eye. The trustees did not vote to do this, but, under board President Terry Janison, made the decision "by consensus."
Janison initially said her only questions had to do with how the complex process would be coordinated. When that issue was tentatively resolved, she said, her "biggest concern" became making "sure after we had that meeting, that we would come back and make that full report at an open board meeting."
Given the opaque character of Edwards' inaugural report, however, "full reporting" from school board members appears highly unlikely. Carefully, Edwards never disclosed exactly with whom she had met or spoken in local government, nor which officials had suggested the complex dance of serial, under-quorum meetings to circumvent the state open-meeting law.
In a recent conversation, Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen wondered why anyone would object to such meetings. Openly acknowledging he had met with Trustee Deanna Wright this way, he said such meetings provide elected officials the opportunity to work collaboratively to define common needs, identify available resources, prevent duplicated services and develop cooperative solutions — all in the interest of saving taxpayer dollars, of course.
Notably, however, Wright has — at least to this point — made no "full report at an open board meeting" on her discussions with the Henderson mayor.
Furthermore, Nevada law already offers opportunity for collaborative communication between local entities in an open and publicly noticed forum.
The Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition was established by the Nevada Legislature specifically to address the need of local entities to deal with common problems that transcend governmental boundaries. Indeed, the legislature did that at the request of Southern Nevada governments. Janison sits on that coalition, which also has a specific subcommittee consisting of city and county managers and a school district designee — all to discuss mutual issues.
What is at stake when school trustees hold confidential "community linkage" sessions, as now being pursued by the school board, is citizen knowledge and oversight regarding the huge sums of taxpayer dollars that flow back and forth between the Clark County School District and the other political entities.
Under state laws, the elected representatives sit together on various boards and collectively decide local issues of growth, building and construction, infrastructure and public services. That arrangement makes these elected politicians highly dependent on one another, setting the scene for "log-rolling" agreements between them, with taxpayer dollars as the lubricant: City X will support School District Y's proposal if School District Y will help City X get what it wants.
One such board is the Clark County Debt Management Commission, or DMC. It decides whether a local political subdivision — like the school district — can issue general obligation bonds indebting the public and requiring taxes for repayment. So when the district indebted taxpayers $4.9 billion for the next 20 years, the DMC had to give the green light.
Another such board is the Clark County Oversight Panel for School Facilities. When CCSD recently gave out $2 million for a swimming pool in the City of Henderson and $5 million for a performing arts center in Las Vegas from the 1998 school bond money, it was the Oversight Panel that would have reviewed the plan and approved the bond. However, it is unclear whether the panel actually reviewed the plan because, even in this public forum, elected officials currently skirt the open-meeting laws. They fail to record the meetings and do not notify the public through agenda mailings, as required by state laws.
Routinely at these meetings, the very elected officials who now plot clandestinely with CCSD trustees to circumvent Nevada's open-meeting laws busily horse-trade taxpayer dollars, land and services:
- The City of Henderson recently approved $50,000 in grants from the city's redevelopment tax fund so that Basic High School could resurface its gymnasium and C.T. Sewell Elementary School could plant flowers.
- The school board last week accepted from the City of Henderson a piece of land on which CCSD agreed to build a new elementary school — one not identified in the district's capital improvement plan. Adjacent to it, Henderson will build a city park partly utilizing the school property. Construction of the $30 million school campus will require future approvals by the DMC and the Oversight Panel for additional bond money.
- Another agenda item approved last week allowed the Clark County Parks & Recreation Department to connect to the school district's water line at Jerome Mack Middle School. This arrangement will allow parks personnel to plant a landscape garden in the Flamingo/Arroyo trail while the school district foots the water bill paid through the district's general education fund.
- Finally, the school board will again this week go before the DMC, seeking another $249 million in school building bonds.
Is it really too radical to ask that school board members simply formulate their questions of other government entities in public and then ask those other entities to provide their answers on the public record also?
The communication model trustees are instead attempting to follow is remarkably condescending. It assumes that the appropriate role for citizens is as blindfolded, mute lumps of clay — while their betters talk over the possibilities in secret, behind closed doors.
Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.