More school board secrecy

Karen Gray

Has the Clark County Board of School Trustees found yet another way to get around Nevada's open-meeting laws? Or, are they now just thumbing their nose at Nevada laws altogether?

Recently, NPRI reported that the school board had implemented a practice whereby trustees would meet with other elected officials to discuss public business out of the public eye. Now it appears that the trustees' behind-closed-doors philosophy is not only in operation with other elected officials, but also for school board advisory committees and appointees.

The Bond Oversight Committee (BOC) was organized by board of trustees in the late 1990s as an independent body to provide financial, bond and investment oversight of the district's capital improvement program, and assure the public of district accountability. 

For example, a hot topic at the BOC for some months now has been the district's architect selection process, which has been afflicted by innuendos of favoritism and back-door deals. Seeking to make the architect selection process more open and transparent, the BOC in 2006 revamped the process to a fairer system of categories and tiers.

In April, however, school district staff announced that they had unilaterally moved the architect selection process to the Purchasing Department. Then the Purchasing Department's new Request for Proposal process effectively cancelled the tiered arrangement preferred by the BOC, allowing the district's long-favored "prototype" architects — who already had the regulatory inside track for designing the district's new schools and buildings — to also compete against the smaller firms for modernization or renovation work. Together, the five prototype firms in the last 10 years have received more than $145 million from new construction jobs, compared to the $10 million earned by the 30-odd modernization firms.

Dismayed, committee members requested that the new architect selection process be brought back to the committee for discussion and new recommendations to the board of trustees. 

Discussions among BOC members, trustees and school district staff over the matter have been, let us say, spirited and frank. Publicly, no resolution to the conflict appeared to be in sight. That apparently changed August 12, however. That's when what the school district is calling a "staff meeting" took place away from the public, behind closed doors and with only a few select BOC members.

According to an audio recording of the August 20 BOC meeting, discussions from the secret meeting produced a list of recommendations for the BOC to vote on regarding the architect selection process. It also appears a decision was made to revert back to the tiered architect selection process, keeping the current list of architects until May. In fact, Trustee Carolyn Edwards admonished Facilities staff for not following the BOC directives for action items given at the non-public meeting.

Because public notice of this committee meeting — referred to as such at least six times on August 20 — was not made in accordance with Nevada's open-meeting laws, NPRI requested a copy of the meeting agenda, the back-up materials and audio recordings. CCSD Facilities department employees (BOC staff) then responded that the August 12 meeting was a school-district "staff meeting" to which the BOC members responsible for construction and design issues were invited for discussions.

Section 3.03 of the Nevada Open Meeting Law Manual, Tenth Edition, December 2005 states in pertinent part:

However, when a public body delegates de facto authority to a staff committee to act on its behalf in the formulation, preparation, and promulgation of plans or policies, the staff committee stands in the shoes of the public body and the Open Meeting Law may apply to the staff meetings … [T]he Office of the Attorney General opined that the Open Meeting Law did not apply to internal staff meetings of an executive agency or interagency staff meetings except where a public body delegates policy formulation or planning functions to a staff committee and these policies or plans are the subject of foreseeable action by the public body.

Because this meeting among trustees, staff and BOC officials out of the public eye, with no public agenda or posted notice, deliberated and came to a consensus on items clearly before the BOC and board of trustees, NPRI submitted several e-mails, seeking clarification. The last of these summarized what had been said so far, saying:

Let me see if I understand this: Staff has a staff meeting to discuss issues concerning capital improvement (including issues which may be in front of the BOC for consideration) and invites BOC liaisons to participate in these staff discussions — utilizing their expertise as BOC members. These meetings are not a common occurrence, but do happen. The public is not noticed and cannot attend.

Then NPRI asked, "Can staff act upon the recommendations or conclusions drawn in these meetings without full BOC approval?" The Institute also asked who had attended the meeting.

It was at that point that NPRI's researcher received the following e-mail from CCSD information specialist David Roddy: "Sally will no longer respond to questions sent directly to her. You will need to send your inquiries through the Communications Office."

The district's Communications Office, to this point, has not answered either of the questions, nor has it confirmed or denied the summary account.

Is the Clark County School District, once again, just skirting the public's right to know? Or is the more accurate description that the CCSD is thumbing its nose at the public itself?

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