Nevada School District Hostile to Transparency

Published October 1, 2009

Trustees of Nevada’s Clark County School District have established a pattern of circumventing the state’s open-meeting laws and defying ongoing calls for greater transparency in government in Nevada and across the nation.

School district trustees Carolyn Edwards and Sheila Moulton are tasked with identifying local government officials interested in participating in community linkage meetings with the school board. Community linkage meetings are public gatherings to which the school board invites specific individuals to give input on issues with broad appeal.

But last winter, Edwards said, the Clark County Commission and the Henderson and North Las Vegas city councils suggested what they characterized as a better method.

“In conversations with the county,” Edwards said at the board’s February 26 meeting, “… and with a number of other people, the opinion was expressed that it would be much easier for us to facilitate the communication if we don’t do it as a full board meeting, and [county officials] don’t do it as a full board meeting

“And so the request was that we … would have two people who would go and meet with one or two of the council or commission members,” said Edwards. That way, she said, the groups could be confident of not being “in violation of open-meeting law.”

Less than Full Disclosure

School board members explicitly created a policy of holding meetings with assigned elected officials outside the public eye “by consensus,” said board President Terry Janison—even though they did not vote on it.

Janison said her “biggest concern” became making “sure after we had that meeting, that we would come back and make that full report at an open board meeting.”

However, “full reporting” from school board members appears highly unlikely. Edwards never disclosed whom she met with or spoke to in local government, nor which officials suggested the complex dance of serial, under-quorum meetings circumventing the open-meeting law.

This summer, Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen asked why anyone would object to such meetings. Openly acknowledging he had met with Trustee Deanna Wright this way, he said off-the-record meetings provide elected officials the opportunity to collaborate with each other while saving taxpayer dollars.

So far, however, Wright has made no “full report at an open board meeting” on her discussions with Hafen.

Much to Lose

Furthermore, Nevada law already allows for collaborative communication between local entities in an open and publicly noticed forum.

At the request of Southern Nevada governments, the state legislature established the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition specifically to address local entities’ need to deal with problems transcending governmental boundaries. Janison sits on that coalition, which also has a specific subcommittee consisting of city and county managers and a school district designee, all to discuss mutual issues.

What’s at stake when school trustees hold confidential “community linkage” sessions is citizen knowledge and oversight regarding the huge sums of taxpayer dollars that flow back and forth between the school district and other political entities.

Under state laws, the elected representatives sit together on various boards and collectively decide local issues of growth, building and construction, infrastructure, and public services. That arrangement makes these elected officials highly dependent on one another, setting the scene for “logrolling” agreements with taxpayer dollars as the lubricant: City X will support School District Y’s proposal if School District Y will help City X get what it wants.

One such board is the Clark County Debt Management Commission. It decides whether a local political subdivision—such as the school district—can issue general obligation bonds indebting the public and requiring taxes for repayment. When the district indebted taxpayers $4.9 billion for the next 20 years, the commission had to give the green light.

Scratching Each Other’s Backs

School district trustees and the government entities they deal with have a good deal of horse-trading power and much say in how taxpayers’ money gets used:

* Henderson recently approved $50,000 in grants from the city’s redevelopment tax fund so Basic High School could resurface its gymnasium and C.T. Sewell Elementary School could plant flowers.

* The school board accepted from Henderson a piece of land on which the school district agreed to build a new elementary school not identified in the district’s capital improvement plan. Adjacent to it, Henderson will build a city park partly utilizing the school property. Construction of the $30 million school campus will require future approvals by the Debt Management Commission and the Oversight Panel for additional bond money.

* The Clark County Parks & Recreation Department was recently allowed to connect to the school district’s water line at Jerome Mack Middle School. This arrangement will allow parks personnel to plant a landscape garden in the Flamingo/Arroyo trail while the school district foots the water bill through the district’s general education fund.

* Finally, the school board will soon go before the Debt Management Commission seeking another $249 million in school building bonds.

Instead of communicating with other government entities in public as the law is clearly meant to require, the process of discussing things behind closed doors undoubtedly makes it easier to spend taxpayers’ money, but it’s in conflict both with the law and with taxpayers’ expressed demand for more government transparency and accountability.

Karen Gray ([email protected]) is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.