On the CCSD money trail

Karen Gray

Local school board races often go unnoticed and under-researched by voters. Nevertheless, these campaigns have a truly critical impact on K-12 education. In many respects, this is education's true front line, the place where the very foundation of most students' education is laid down – or not.

The stereotypical picture of local school trustees does not apply to the Clark County School District's board. Yes, CCSD could be regarded as being run by "soccer moms," doting grandmothers and civic-minded activists. The district trustees, however, are also elected officials governing the fifth-largest school district in the nation, with a budget of more than $2 billion and a $3 billion taxpayer-financed capital building bond.

That's why, in the spirit of election seasons past and present, we've stepped out onto the money trail and sought a little transparency on the campaign contributions in the state's largest school district.

According to public records, CCSD trustees have received support from nearly 400 campaign contributors since 1998. During the period, some board members have moved on and no longer serve on the school board. Because each current member of the board has been a trustee, or a candidate, or both since the 2006 campaign season, we've narrowed our research to begin then.

Contribution and Expense (C&E) reports filed for 2006 and the first period of 2008 show that trustees raised over $175,000 in campaign contributions. Surprisingly to some, the largest contributor was neither a casino nor any construction company. Instead it was the local teacher union, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), which led with a whopping $25,000 in contributions.

Yes, this is the same association that negotiates with the CCSD over teacher contracts.

Much of the campaign contributions – at least 27 percent – came from companies (or company principals) who are contractors of the school district.

Between January 2007 and October 23, 2008, those contributors shared more than $333 million dollars in board-approved purchase orders, and another $68 million in change-order increases.

Of that more than $400 million dollars, about $390 million dollars came from the 1998 Capital Improvement Program fund – the 1998 bond money.

Interestingly, each and every architect firm listed under the Prototype Architect categories of the Clark County School District Facilities Division Board Approved 2006 Architect List – approved in May 2007 – was a campaign contributor for at least one of the campaign seasons in review. Several had been contributing even longer.

In 2006, campaign contributions were relatively equal among trustees Sheila Moulton, Terri Janison and Carolyn Edwards. Trustee Edwards raised the most money, receiving 25 percent of her contributions from CCSD payees. On the other hand, Trustee Larry Mason raised the least money, $8,100, and received nothing from district contractors or the teacher union.

The 2008 contributions seem to be continuing the pattern. In 2008's first period, over 39 percent of Trustee Teri Janison's contributions came from contractors. And while Board President Mary Beth Scow beat out Janison in the contractor-contribution sweepstakes with a 50 percent take, Scow was bounced from the race when the Nevada Supreme Court, earlier this year, upheld term limits. Trustee Ruth Johnson, also disqualified due to term limits, reported only one campaign contributor for the 2008 first period – the CCEA.

This pattern – where groups wanting money from the school district are the big players during school board races – is one of the most negative consequences of government-run school systems.

It also explains why, when the top priorities of public school districts all over the country have been independently measured, they almost never have turned out to be the actual education of our children.

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