Time for a wake-up call

Karen Gray

There is a premise that leadership and success start at the top. If this is true, then it is no wonder that education in Nevada is in a shameful state.

The Nevada State Board of Education –  the tippity top of Nevada's Education ladder –  is charged by the citizens to promote high standards and develop education policy for all Nevada's children. The Board is entrusted with the distribution of and accountability for taxpayer funds – upwards of $2.2 billion in the Distributive School Account for the 2010-2011 biennium.

The Las Vegas media already has widely reported that state board member Greg Nance was observed alternately sleeping or engaging in "entertaining"  his wife during the August 8 and 9 official meeting of the Board. But those stories don't begin to recount how the public was disenfranchised during those proceedings.

Media reports fail to adequately capture that while Mr. Nance (who has subsequently resigned) was – more often than not  found sleeping during the August 8 session, he also repeatedly voted on items the discussion of which he'd slept through. Indeed, at times, members of the public who were present had to wake him so Board votes could proceed. Nor did the reports reveal that members of the public attending the hearing in Southern Nevada were denied agenda reference materials – on the $2 billion state education budget proposals no less – and were invited, by the Board chair, to leave the proceedings if they found Mr. Nance's inappropriate behavior offensive.

The critically important approval of the 2010-2011 Biennial Budget, including the prioritization of enhancements, was Item 12 on the agenda. However, those participating from Southern Nevada via video conference found that, for them – unlike for northern participants – no copies of the proposed budget or the presentation materials were available for inspection. This was no inadvertent oversight by Board staff, however – it was intentional.  

According to Board of Education staffers, the budget is "not for public dissemination." Rather, it is a "proposed budget for the biennial and there's no information for the public at this time." Staffers further stated, "Once the Board approves the enhancements and they are sent to the Governor, then they become public information." When Southern Nevada attendees directly requested both the documents and time to review them before the Board took action, Board Vice President Anthony Ruggiero denied the request – saying, "with all due respect." Board members then proceeded to vote to accept the proposed budget draft.

And, oh yes … Nance, who was fast asleep, had given his documents away.

Thus, on Friday, August 8, Southern Nevadans were explicitly excluded from public oversight regarding the expenditure of over $2 billion in public funds. They were denied a voice in the proposed budget reductions, which called for elimination of teacher signing bonuses and remediation grants. Southern residents could not weigh in on reductions to Early Childhood programs and other critical proposals affecting student achievement in Nevada.

No doubt it will come as no shock that the Board's disregard for Southern Nevada meeting participants continued on Saturday, August 9.

Without going into graphic detail, it is enough to say that Mr. Nance's behavior continued to be disruptive and quite often offensive. And, yes, it is true, Mr. Nance, who was frequently "enjoying" his wife, did tell the Board's legal council – when asked to show some decorum – to "Bite Me!"

For other Southern Nevada attendees, witnessing Mr. Nance's extra curricular activities was unavoidable. After the Board voided one of his votes, Nance placed himself directly before the video-conferencing screen, saying he could not hear discussions due to having indulged in too much "rocking and rolling," causing a blown ear drum. Others in the Southern Nevada audience would opine that the reason he "couldn't hear" was simply because he had been asleep.

Thus, when Board member Cindy Reid asked for a postponement of proceedings due to Mr. Nance's inappropriate conduct, she was well justified. It was time for Vice President Ruggiero to take command of the Southern Nevada proceedings. However, after spirited discussions between the Board, Mr. Nance and legal council, it was then that Vice President Ruggiero proclaimed that Ms. Reid and the Southern Nevada audience were free to leave the proceedings if they found Mr. Nance's behavior offensive.

Vice President Ruggiero had the opportunity to bring integrity and professional conduct back to the proceeding. Instead, he lowered the bar.

But he didn't just lower the bar.  He effectively presented member Reid with a choice – between representing her constituents or her personal standards of public behavior. She chose the former. The choice he gave southern participants was similar: You can pursue citizen oversight of government or you can go with your moral standards.

By implication, the acting chair of the Nevada Board of Education said to Southern Nevada as a whole that, today, some of you will have a voice, others of you might have a voice and still others will be recognized but not heard.

And as for Mr. Nance, he chose his conduct – he even raised the intensity of what he called his "enjoying" and "entertaining" of his wife.

That these are Nevada's education leaders says volumes about why Nevada public education is in the condition it is. It also says much about the nature of the state Board as an institution – and where future reforms need to start.

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