Bill seeking appointed school board members resurfaces in Carson City

The Clark County School Board of Trustees and Superintendent Jesus Jara

There’s an old adage that appears to ring true in Carson City’s legislative hallways.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

For the third legislative session in a row, Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) has sponsored a bill that would substantially rejigger the makeup of the state’s two largest school boards. The proposed legislation, SB111, would replace the governing bodies of the Clark and Washoe county school districts with a hybrid board made up of both elected and appointed trustees.

The bill isn’t a surprise. Kieckhefer sponsored nearly identical versions of the measure during the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions. And, before those efforts, former Assemblyman Pat Hickey sponsored legislation in 2015 that would have authorized appointed school board members under certain conditions. 

That same year, former Gov. Brian Sandoval floated the idea of appointed school boards in his State of the State address, saying “Although well-intended, some of these boards have become disconnected from their communities.”

But, six years later, the idea remains just that. So will this lawmaking cycle be any different?

“I think that there is momentum growing, particularly in Clark County, to make a change,” Kieckhefer said.

His bill isn’t the only one addressing the topic. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said he also plans to sponsor legislation that would propose revamped school boards in Clark and Washoe counties and that would include three members appointed by the governing bodies of the respective county and largest cities. The remaining four trustees would be elected in districts drawn by the county commissions.

Kieckhefer’s bill is slightly different. It calls for eliminating the trustee election districts in Clark and Washoe counties and replacing them with three trustees elected at large and four appointed trustees.

In Clark County, the four other trustees would be appointed by the county commission and the governing bodies of the three largest cities (Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas). In Washoe County, the four appointed trustees would come from the governor, county commission and the governing bodies of the two largest cities (Reno and Sparks). 

Kieckhefer, however, signaled a willingness to consider other hybrid structures. No hearings for SB111 have been scheduled yet.

But the mere existence of the bill — with another on the way from Frierson — has excited those who want to see drastic changes to school boards while unnerving others who fear such action would overstep the democratic process. 

***

School board elections are considered low-ballot races that don’t generally involve a lot of campaign spending or fanfare. But the candidates who emerge victorious wind up assuming a hefty responsibility — providing policy oversight and direction to the superintendent to make children’s education the best it can be.

Plus, schools are the common touchstone in a community. After all, most people grew up attending school. Now, some send their children to school. And others work at a school.

All of these elements combined can make education a hot-button issue, sometimes putting trustees in the crosshairs of the constituents they serve and the school district they help oversee. But the Clark and Washoe school boards — like others around the nation — have had their fair share of controversy in the form of disputes with the superintendent, in-fighting among trustees and social media flare-ups. 

During a Clark County School Board meeting earlier this month, Trustee Katie Williams — one of three new trustees elected in November — sent a tweet, seemingly aimed at teachers, about schools reopening. The tweet concluded with, “This isn’t about safety, this is about you never being satisfied. Go back to work, or find a new job.”

The tweet immediately stirred emotions and, by the next day, fellow board member Lola Brooks wrote this reply: “Trustee Williams, please don’t tweet during meetings and let’s agree to focus on moving forward together while recognizing the immense challenges reopening schools brings for students and staff alike. All trustees should remember this.”

Another new Clark County trustee, Lisa Guzman, found herself at the center of an ethics complaint lodged by the Clark County Education Association soon after she was elected. Meanwhile, there has been simmering tension among existing trustees over their adherence (or sometimes lack thereof) to a balanced governance model, which the board has been receiving training on the past few months.

Rewind the proverbial tape a bit further, and similar issues popped up in previous years as well. The Washoe County School Board had its own headline-grabbing moment in January when one of the board’s new trustees, Jeff Church, took issue with a statement made by Superintendent Kristen McNeill condemning the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to a report from This Is Reno

Despite occasional tensions or public-facing dustups, both school board presidents — Linda Cavazos in Clark County and Angie Taylor in Washoe County — said they oppose any move away from a fully elected governing body.

Referring to parents and their children’s education, Taylor said, “That’s the most precious thing in their lives in most cases. That inherently can be emotional.”

Cavazos and Taylor said adding appointed members would strip community members from having a say in who represents them. They also raised questions about how the appointments would be done and whether that would further politicize board positions that are supposed to be nonpartisan.

“I don’t feel that would take us in a good direction,” Cavazos said.

Deanna Wright, who spent 12 years as a Clark County school trustee representing a Henderson-area district, also isn’t a fan of moving to a partially appointed board.

“It’s a power play,” said Wright, whose third term ended last year. “It’s the (legislative) body saying we know better than another elected body about what needs to happen. And I just fundamentally think that’s wrong.”

Given prior similar bills and ongoing school board issues, the renewed push to overhaul the state’s two largest school boards didn't come as a shock, though. Wright said part of the problem lies in a general misunderstanding of a school board’s role as a policy-driven body that shouldn’t be getting into the weeds of operational details.

But she acknowledged that hasn’t been very well communicated by current or former boards or the district itself. Ultimately, the situation could compel lawmakers to act on the proposed legislation.

“I think if the board does not change what they’re doing now, they’re going to end up with this,” she said, referring to a hybrid school board.

***

The concept of a board with appointed members isn’t unprecedented. Across the country, school boards come in all shapes and sizes, with appointed or elected members, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States.

While hybrid boards are not as common, Nevada already has an example of one — the State Board of Education, which has four elected voting members, three appointed voting members and four appointed non-voting members.  The Legislature passed SB197 in 2011 to make that change.

Mark Newburn, who has served as both an elected and, now, appointed member of the State Board of Education, wrote an op-ed for The Nevada Independent last year advocating for a similar governing structure at the local school board level. He noted that the state board’s appointed members include a student, parent, teacher, industry member, district superintendent, school district trustee and a member of the Nevada Board of Regents.

“This new structure gives the state board representation and deep education expertise, resulting in a more effective policy and governance team,” Newburn wrote. “While the state board is larger than the board of trustees, its meetings are more efficient, without all the drama.”

Proposed legislation to create hybrid school boards in Clark and Washoe counties appears to have backing from the business community and some parents. The Vegas Chamber is “very much in favor of the bill,” said Cara Clarke, the organization’s vice president for communications.

“Our K-12 education system in Clark County, being one of the largest in the country, has unique challenges and leadership challenges,” she said. “By diversifying the board with both elected and appointed (members), you can bring different types of expertise and experiences into that board that can perhaps broaden perspectives and highlight maybe some new ways to do it.”

Erin Phillips, president of Power2Parent, said the advocacy organization leans in favor of a hybrid school board, though wants to hear bill testimony before taking an official stance. Power2Parent and its members, she said, have long been frustrated by what she described as an “unbelievably dysfunctional” board that seems more beholden to employees than it does to parents and students. (The organization has been a strong critic of the Clark County School District’s decision to remain in virtual learning mode for so long, and is planning a “Back to School Protest” Thursday at the school board’s first in--person meeting in nearly a year.)

While Phillips said she has some questions about the appointment process, she considers it an overall better idea that could lead to a more effective board.

“Everything is done at such a snail’s pace, they don’t really accomplish much at a meeting,” she said. “ A lot of things are kicked down the road.”

Cavazos, who became the Clark County School Board president last month, acknowledged the challenges that have plagued the governing body the last few years and said better communication and transparency must be a goal moving forward. 

“Let’s just say I don’t think it helps when there are meetings that appear to get bogged down with personal agendas or personality clashes as opposed to actually getting the business of the school board accomplished,” she said.

With more than three months left in the legislative session, the fate of the school board-related bills won’t be known for some time. But the conversations will overlap with a critical time in the history of the nation’s K-12 system, as educators determine how to reverse learning loss associated with the pandemic.

Reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

Student watch: Educators closely monitor enrollment numbers for coming school year

On a recent morning, a colorful banner appeared on a fence outside Abston Elementary School in the southwest Las Vegas valley.

“The building office is officially open,” according to the message printed in blue letters. “We invite families to register children. We are excited to serve you!”

Principal Jeff Hybarger talks with a reporter during a tour of Sandra B. Abston Elementary School as it nears completion in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The banner serves as a friendly reminder to neighborhood families who may not realize a new elementary school — featuring sparkling computer labs, large windows and a spacious courtyard — is opening this year. But it also speaks to the numbers watch occuring at campuses across the Clark County School District each year: If schools don’t reach their projected enrollment, they risk losing staff members.

So every summer, educators such as Principal Jeff Hybarger wait with bated breath and a touch of optimism as they monitor their enrollment numbers. The district’s projected enrollment for Abston — one of its two new elementary schools welcoming students in August — is 724. As of Thursday, 672 students had registered, leaving a gap of 52.

“It’s hard to say what we’ll get,” said Hybarger, who, as principal, is shepherding Abston through its debut. But he struck a more hopeful tone later in the conversation: “I’m confident that we’ll be where we need to be.”

Principal Jeff Hybarger as seen during a tour of Sandra B. Abston Elementary School as it nears completion in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Forecasting enrollment

The 724 number didn’t just fall out of thin air. It represents months of planning and calculations that happen throughout the year as the nation’s fifth-largest school district tries to predict how many children it will be educating. The process falls somewhere between an art and a science given the many factors at play — the economy, family moves, and charter schools, to name a few. Simply put, there’s always some fluctuation.

“We’ll gain just in elementary almost 3,000 students from the beginning of the school year until May 1,” said Rick Baldwin, the district’s director of demographic zoning and geographic information systems. “We have some schools that will gain 70, 80 additional students in that time frame.”

The process starts with a districtwide enrollment projection, which is calculated in October or early November, Baldwin said. It involves analyzing existing enrollment numbers and factors that may cause numbers to shift. 

For instance, the department has one staff member whose entire job revolves around tracking residential communities in Clark County, Baldwin said. New housing developments or apartment complexes mean more children, many of whom will enroll in traditional public schools.

On average, 100 single-family homes yield about 17 elementary-age students, while 100 apartment units or condos generally contain about 14 children who attend elementary school, Baldwin said. Separate calculations exist for middle and high schools.

The district’s enrollment count for the 2018-2019 school year was 320,703 students, but that figure doesn’t include pre-kindergarten because those children are not included in state apportionment funding. Early childhood programs receive funding through state categorical grants and federal money. 

Still, the school district must find space to accommodate pre-kindergarten students. That’s why Baldwin — essentially the chief enrollment guru — likes to say the district served about 326,000 students, including 5,363 pre-kindergarteners, last year.

Baldwin said the school district expects to serve 321,021 students in the upcoming school year.

After forecasting districtwide enrollment, Baldwin’s team tackles its next task — estimating the number of students who will attend each school. Principals and school organizational teams learn the projected enrollment numbers when strategic budgets arrive in January. 

The staffing levels based on projected enrollment, however, could change after what’s called “Count Day,” which occurs several weeks into the school year and determines staffing and state funding. Baldwin said the “Count Day” will happen shortly after Labor Day this year.

Why the delay? The district tends to see 20,000 fewer students than projected during the first two weeks of school, perhaps because families haven’t pre-enrolled their children or they’re busy moving to new residences, Baldwin said. So a “Count Day” in early September often produces more accurate enrollment numbers.

“With anything, of course, there are drawbacks and side effects,” Baldwin said. “You potentially have students sitting in school for four weeks and then potential changes to staffing after students have been in class.”

Enrollment trends

Three decades ago, the Clark County School District’s student population was about one-third of the size it is now. Rampant growth in the 1990s and early 2000s pushed enrollment from 105,151 students in the 1988-1989 school year to more than 300,000 by 2006. 

Enrollment growth continued until the Great Recession, when it dipped and leveled off for a few years. Then, as the economy improved, the number of students started climbing again.

The school district’s enrollment fell by .5 percent in the 2018-2019 academic year, marking the first decline in seven years. Baldwin said the district’s elementary enrollment is decreasing, while middle and high school enrollment is increasing. 

Some of the elementary decrease can be attributed to the expanding portfolio of charter schools, which are public schools that operate under a performance contract issued by a public entity.

About 42,000 students across Nevada attended state-sponsored charter schools last year, and officials expect that number to increase for the 2019-2020 academic year. Four new state-sponsored charter schools, which likely will enroll a combined 2,500 students, are opening this year in Southern Nevada, said Pat Hickey, executive director of the Charter School Association of Nevada. (Another charter, Nevada Virtual Academy, closed its underperforming elementary program at the end of the 2018-2019 year, displacing several hundred students.)

The Clark County School District has increased its marketing efforts to curb the flow of students fleeing for charters — a situation that carries a financial implication given that state per-pupil funding follows those children. Charter growth also led to the district abandoning plans to build a new elementary school in North Las Vegas. After a few charters popped up, enrollment numbers dropped in nearby traditional public schools.

Baldwin said he told his boss, “Pull this project. We no longer need it.”

But dialogue between district and charter officials has improved in recent years, he said, making enrollment projections and capital planning easier. Baldwin said the district doesn’t have an exact tally of how many students it has lost to charters. Last year, the district blamed $4 million of its deficit on revenue reductions tied to students leaving for charters.

While more charters are coming into the fold, the four new schools are the first to open since 2017. Hickey said charters have helped with overcrowding at traditional public schools and provided families with another option.

“The four this year represent a process that takes time,” he said. “There’s a lot of charter schools that never open because they don’t make the cut. It’s not easy to open a charter school, nor should it be.”

Charter schools certainly aren’t the only cause for decreasing enrollment. Other factors, such as Millennials starting families later and the fallout from the Great Recession, are playing a role, Baldwin said. Clark County births peaked at 30,584 during the 2007-2008 school calendar year (measured from October through September for school-eligibility purposes) and then dropped by roughly 5,000 within five years, according to district data. There were 25,771 births in the 2012-2013 school calendar year.

As a result, the incoming cohorts of sixth- and seventh-graders — all the pre-recession babies — are noticeably larger than lower grades.

Hundreds of chairs as seen in the lunch room during a tour of Sandra B. Abston Elementary School as it nears completion in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Prepping for a debut

Hybarger, the principal of Abston Elementary School, knows he has competition. The school was built to relieve overcrowding at three nearby elementary schools — Rogers, Goolsby and Hayes — but that doesn’t make enrollment an automatic. Families could enroll their children in private, charter or online schools rather than take a chance on a new school. 

The veteran educator said he has a plan to make Abston — home of the astros — a desirable choice. His long-term vision includes reaching a 1-to-1 ratio for students and technology devices and developing a robust STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program. 

A goal more difficult to measure, of course, is creating a welcoming environment.

“You have to build a community, a school, that is really an inviting place for children but also an inviting place for their whole family,” he said.

As murals go up on walls and furniture moves into classrooms, Hybarger and his office staff are busy checking enrollment totals each day. But he’s confident hundreds of blue chairs stacked recently in the cafeteria will be occupied by students come Aug. 12, the first day of school.