Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The conversation heading into a legislative committee's final decision about how to reorganize the Clark County School District often centered on one question: Who would end up losing the most?
After months of public hearings and countless hours of testimony, we have our answer: the Clark County School Board.
Under the reorganization plan being workshopped, the seven trustees elected to oversee the country’s fifth-largest school district will see their traditional role in determining its direction diminished in favor of giving more power to individual schools.
When the final plan is rolled out next year, it will be nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way education policy is shaped in Clark County.
But the School Board has lost more than just power during the process. As officials worked overtime in recent months to hammer out the details of the reorganization, lawmakers and education insiders complained that trustees have been silent at key meetings, occasionally hostile and at times obstructionist.
“Their tone has changed of late,” said Stephen Silberkraus, a Republican assemblyman representing Henderson. “They need to either get on board or get out of the way.”
Though tensions have been brewing since the process started last October, things came to a head two weeks ago, when trustee Deanna Wright clashed with Republican state Sen. and reorganization committee chairman Michael Roberson. He criticized the board for not letting Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky attend a series of public hearings on the plan.
“I think it speaks volumes about that school board,” Roberson said.
At another reorganization hearing a week later, County Commissioner Steve Sisolak also called attention to Skorkowsky’s absence. When he phoned board President Linda Young to ask why, he said, he didn’t hear back. “To be frank, I’m used to getting phone calls returned and I didn’t get a phone call returned.”
Board members claimed it was because they had yet to take an official stance on the reorganization plan, but when they did so last Wednesday, it may have been too late.
In worried tones, the trustees ultimately decided to release a joint statement citing “significant” issues with the plan, despite the fact that they had known the gist of the proposal for nearly four months.
“You unfortunately have chosen to remain on the sidelines,” said Stephen Augspurger, head of the local school administrators' union. “Your input was valuable, you didn’t come forth with it and now at this latest hour, you are not a partner for this to move forward.”
Trustee Wright, who represents Henderson, blamed the delay on the board’s obligation to follow Open Meeting Law.
“We’re taking a hit for following the rules,” she said. “I’m disappointed that some of the other elected officials … haven’t been respectful of us.”
The board has lost influence as a result, and doubt has been cast on its credibility at a time when the spotlight is shining brightly on the rollout of some of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief education reforms.
“I think the public is looking for them to provide some answers, and they haven’t seen that,” Sisolak said. “I think they don’t understand the public interest in (the reorganization) and they’re being territorial.”
But some trustees say they kept on the sidelines to avoid the perception that they were trying to quash reform.
“The tone seemed to indicate that it would be better for us to take a step back and be observers,” said Trustee Erin Cranor. “It’s possible that we made (the wrong) assumption.”
Those without a stake in the political fight say the board has been put in an awkward position.
“It’s a direct challenge to the authority of the trustees,” said Sylvia Lazos, UNLV law professor and local education advocate. "How do you want them to handle it?”
Whatever the case, the perception could have political consequences. While board President Young skated to her final term in the June primaries, Wright faces a challenger in the general election later this year.
And lawmakers are already reviving the nuclear option: Turning the Clark County School Board into an appointed body.
Roberson has filed a bill draft for the next legislative session that would disband the board’s elected positions. Instead, leaders from municipalities like North Las Vegas and Henderson would appoint their own representatives. It follows a similar push to reform the board in last year’s legislative session.
Asked whether the decision was partly informed by his dealings with the School Board, Roberson took a long pause before answering diplomatically.
“It’s based on my long observation of the education system in Southern Nevada," he said, "and I think that’s an important change that needs to happen.”