New school board, new direction

Karen Gray

Six months ago, three new trustees were sworn into office on the Clark County Board of School Trustees. For the first time in more than 10 years, the school board had a majority of first-term representatives. This raised a question: Could change be on the horizon?

Right out of the starting gates, however, the board made it adamantly clear that a new board did not necessarily mean change. The new trustees professed allegiance to "Policy Governance®" — the board's controversial, hands-off, trust-in-staff governing method — and the status quo. Board President Terri Janison continued the tradition of shutting down public comments through rhetorical but false claims that state open-meeting laws prevent board conversations with some public speakers. And new trustees were taught the long-time shibboleth: speak with one voice and represent the district as a whole.

Yet, the new board was also entering a transition period as the new trustees tip-toed around — careful not to offend — learning the ropes and each other. While the veterans touted the district line and charted the way, the newbies quietly followed along.

Fast forward six-months…

The transition period seems to have come to a screeching halt. Policy Governance appears to be dangling loosely out the window — or is it behind closed doors? While the open-meeting-law rhetoric is still being used to thwart unwanted discussion, now it's being fired at trustees and not the public. And there are now two voices coming from the dais — if not more.

In a recent public meeting, two freshman trustees, Deanna Wright and Linda Young, quashed any remaining honeymoon-effect lingering among the board members.

Earning applause from the audience, Wright dismantled the notion, implied by veteran trustees, that trustees are compelled to vote yea for agenda items that a committee has already considered and recommended for passage.

"We are the final decision makers! We are not told by the committees what to do. … Just because Bond Oversight has said something doesn't mean that we cannot continue to ask questions and change," declared Wright.

Later she added, "We need to be careful in saying, constantly, ‘well it's gone through Bond Oversight.' That doesn't mean that it can't go through us again for discussion and final vote."

Young agreed. In no uncertain terms, she said, while she appreciates committee input, things change day-to-day. And as an elected official, she will exercise her right to disagree and vote independently.

"Even if the process has gone all the way up to the wire, and if I see that it's not workable, I'm going to exercise my right to say no," asserted Young — who, indeed, did vote no.

With that, the honeymoon undeniably ended.

And Policy Governance?

For sure, it is still heralded as a hill to die for. But are trustees actually practicing the hands-off principles and policies the school board professes?

Over the past six months, it has come to light that Trustee Edwards has been involved in at least one — behind the scenes — investigation into district operations. And it is also evident that Edwards regularly partakes in untold staff committee sessions, discussions and meetings — including sessions pertaining to the architect and school-construction process and one meeting with land developers.

While Edwards' hands-on practices may be a positive change from the hands-off, trust-in-staff practice of old, not so with the hypocrisy and secrecy necessarily involved. While the board pledges allegiance to a hands-off, trust-in-staff philosophy, it countenances contrary actions behind the scenes. Moreover, Edwards' actions disenfranchise the public by shielding the district and the board from the public accountability that comes from transparency.

As for thwarting unwanted public input, Janison has not recently told people that board members are prohibited from conversing with public speakers. Instead, veteran board members now appear to be hiding behind the open-meeting laws to deflect unwanted discussion and dissent by newer board members.

In the meeting mentioned, cautions regarding open-meeting-law boundaries were often raised by board attorney Mark Woods and Janison. While some warnings appeared warranted, others appeared simply interjected to redirect trustee discussions.

So the board's mantra — "We-are-one-district-and-we-speak-as-one-voice" — appears kaput. Today, one can definitely hear two voices coming from the dais.

Regularly, attendees will hear Trustee Young announcing that she is elected by District C constituents, she will represent District C needs and she will base her activities, inquiries and decisions on those needs. When Janison politely attempts to prod and direct Young back toward the mantra, Young, just as sweetly, openly digs in her heals and represents her constituents.

Young's independent thinking has launched meaningful discussion and deliberations on the board. Sometimes, if you listen closely, you can even hear constituent representation coming from other trustees.

So, six months later, the Clark County Board of School Trustees is still working its way through new personalities, new perspectives and new philosophies. What is quite clear, however, is that this new board does mean change.

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