‘Desk-men for the bureaucracy’

Karen Gray

It is an important legacy, but the Clark County school board now seems eager to abandon it.

The year was 1991, and Donald H. Haight, the school board's general counsel, was testifying before the Nevada Legislature.

"Essentially what we are trying to do is return more to the town hall type meetings, to allow individuals to come to a regularly scheduled board meeting and express their concerns," he said.

"The reason we want to be able to respond to these members," Haight continued, "is because we have tried this with other boards in this state, and when the board members do not respond to the individuals concerned, it makes the individuals very antagonistic and they are very upset by an absence of response. (Emphasis added.)

"So what we are asking for is the ability to allow the public to come forward, express their concerns, and get feedback from the board without taking any official action."

The school board's attorney was asking the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs to approve AB 252 and thus allow Clark County school trustees to solicit and respond to expressions of citizen concern from the community.

That Haight's words even exist in Nevada's legislative record is a tribute to Nevada's historical commitment to open government. That these words were spoken by the general counsel for the Clark County School District makes them doubly significant — especially given what district trustees are now contemplating.

In a 180-degree turnaround, CCSD trustees are now considering prohibiting certain public speech and removing trustees' ability to respond to many public speakers.

Current board policy is that "trustees may choose to respond" to members of the public, whether the issues raised by members of the public are on the current agenda or not.

However, the "policy change" that the board is currently contemplating says, "trustees may choose to respond to you if your comments are addressed to an item on that meeting's agenda." (Emphasis added.)

Under this proposed new regime, therefore, if an individual raises an issue supposedly not on the board's agenda for that meeting, trustees will just stare at him and remain mute, no matter how important the issue. Official "policy" would even prohibit trustees from responding to comments or questions about policy — should such issues, however narrowly defined, not happen to be on the board's agenda for that meeting.

Earlier CCSD school boards gallantly pioneered the way for Nevada's tradition of open and reciprocal communication between the elected and the electors. Recent Clark County school boards, however, have affected a self-imposed code of silence that keeps the public at more than arms' length.

In an early 2006 training session on Policy Governance® (the board's model of how to do its job), the board's hired consultant, Dr. John Carver (who owns the "Policy Governance" trademark), advised the school board to quit talking to the public.

Appearing to heed this advice, trustees soon started telling the public — entirely falsely — that Nevada's open-meeting law forbade trustees from responding to certain speakers.

Is the current proposal merely a ham-handed attempt to shield the district, or trustees, from controversy? After all, as board counsel Haight acknowledged before the 1991 Nevada Legislature, "when the board members do not respond to the individuals concerned, it makes the individuals very antagonistic and they are very upset by an absence of response."

Martin Kravtiz, who was a school board trustee in 1991, says the current board's proposed policy is tragic.

"The down side of what we did [in 1991]," he says, "was we were in the papers every week. But, you know what, it got a lot of change happening."

Yes, it was unpleasant to be picked on unfairly, says Kravtiz. But he cautions that if trustees do not engage with the public and instead allow the district to become a staff-run organization, then the trustees serve no role — "they just become desk-men for the bureaucracy."

After years of implementing its own code of silence, today's CCSD school board has brought history full circle — again generating individuals and groups who are "antagonistic" and "very upset" by the absence of response.

The board's silence, however, has been heard loud and clear by at least one lawmaker. Disturbed by his observations at school board meetings, Assemblyman Harvey Munford last session brought forward legislation requiring school board trustees to respond to public speakers.

During a 2009 Nevada Assembly Education Committee hearing, Assemblyman Munford explained:

I regret to say I have been disappointed by some of the behavior I have witnessed during my visits with the Clark County School District Board. For example, I have seen trustees seem impassive or stoic, or ignore people who have taken the time to voice their views. Often the people are describing inequities, voicing frustrations, and making suggestions. In my experience, the pleas of citizens tend to become shouts and anger when their statements go unanswered. This is no way for elected officials to treat the public. This is no way to benefit from feedback on how board policies are working in all of our communities. This is no way to meet the needs of our children.

In a recent interview, Assemblyman Munford said that he had been seeing progress with the board, but this latest proposed policy revision reaffirms the need to go forth with his bill.

"My whole bill was based upon [the fact that CCSD trustees] didn't give any direction or any response," he said. "They seemed to ignore the public. It was like what the public had to say didn't have any value at all."

Twenty years after proposing laws to encourage public bodies to converse with the public, the CCSD school board may soon be lobbying the Nevada Legislature against such laws.

Now, that's one for the history books.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.