Las Vegas Sun

January 29, 2023

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Who to vote for in the school board races? We talked to the candidates about their plans for CCSD

School board candidates

Steve Marcus

Brena Zamora, right, talks to Eva White during a forum for Clark County School District D candidates May 5, 2022, at the East Las Vegas Library. The forum was organized by the Clark County Conservative Coalition and Vote Nevada.

CCSD School Board District D Candidates

Amore Blakemore, left, talks with candidate Brenda Zamora during a candidate forum for CCSD School Board District D candidates at the East Las Vegas Library Thursday, May 5, 2022. The forum was organized by the Clark County Conservative Coalition and Vote Nevada. Launch slideshow »

Local voters will once again have crowded primary ballots for the Clark County School District Board of Trustees, with 22 candidates between the three races.

Candidates with diverse backgrounds are vying to represent downtown Las Vegas, the eastern, northeastern and southwestern corners of the valley, and north Henderson. Incumbents in all three seats are seeking reelection. Many candidates are parents or grandparents of current students. A few are educators themselves.

The Sun reached out to every candidate. Here’s what they had to say about working on behalf of the parents and staff of CCSD, the nation’s fifth-largest school district:

District D | Downtown Las Vegas, Northeast Valley

Irene Cepeda (incumbent)

Occupation: Project director, Nevada State College College of Education

Children in CCSD: One

Governance isn’t easy, intuitive or based on “power” and individual aspirations, Cepeda said. It’s about teamwork.

“In reality, there are systems and you’re building out and strengthening systems,” said Cepeda, who by day oversees federal grants to recruit culturally diverse future teachers.

For her second term, she’d want the board to focus on student outcomes. This spring, the board adopted as its goals teacher recruitment and retention, addressing student violence and discipline disproportionality, and improving test scores in middle-school math and third-grade reading.

Cepeda was the swing vote last fall in the split board’s decision to fire, then reverse the firing, of Superintendent Jesus Jara. She said it’s understandable that people are still curious why she changed her mind.

She said she wants to be fair and consistent in evaluating Jara, but the board hadn’t been.

“As someone who supervises folks, before anything happens, I need to make sure that my expectations are clear and the goals I set for them are smart goals, they’re attainable,” she said.

Steven Conger

Occupation: Substitute teacher, CCSD

Children in CCSD: None

Conger wants to give more control to schools and parents.

He has been in schools across CCSD and has seen how each site has its own needs and cultures. But CCSD is “too big, it’s too bloated, and they try to govern everything from the central source,” he said. “You can’t make rules from Mount Olympus.”

Conger has been a substitute for six years. He also leads home-school pods, was a lobbyist for the conservative Power2Parent group, and attended District D schools through high school at Las Vegas Academy.

He said he’s not partial to any particular mechanism of decentralization, such as breaking up CCSD, but said families and educators know best what’s happening at their schools, and the district should support them without making decisions for them.

Conger said he was diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder in middle school and saw first-hand how ill-equipped CCSD was to handle his needs.

“I’ll tell people this: I don’t know what’s best for your kids,” he said. “You know what’s best for your kids, and that’s who should be making those decisions, is you.”

Tavorra Elliott

Occupation: Nail technician

Children in CCSD: Two

Elliott’s wide-ranging platform includes campus safety, teacher retention, and fiscal accountability.

Elliott — a Vegas native whose mother was a custodian in CCSD, her stepmother an assistant principal and her dad who still drives a bus — said she felt unsafe 30 years ago when she was a student at Rancho High. Now her two teenagers, who attend Las Vegas High, are being bullied, she said; she feared her son was suicidal.

She said one of her motivators to run was finding out how severe her children’s issues were and how unheard she felt as a parent.

“I think I have enough desire, enough passion to go and fish for us,” she said. “I never claimed to be perfect, but I am not afraid to go ask for the help that we need.”

She said that well-paid human resources staff can’t hire and retain teachers, who are leaving because they don’t feel secure with their modest pay.

“If they don’t feel trust, if they don’t feel safe, if they have a button way across the room that they cannot reach when they’re almost murdered in their classrooms, they’re not going to want to teach for us,” she said.

Fernando Romero

Occupation: Retired community organizer

Children in CCSD: One child and one grandchild. Also, three grown children who attended CCSD schools.

Romero wants to visit every school in District D, ensure CCSD complies with the state reorganization law and strengthen education for young immigrants and English language learners.

Romero sits on three school organizational teams — Rancho High, Global Community High and East Career & Technical Academy. These site-level boards are a requirement of the 2017 school reorganization law, an alternative to breaking up the district that put more power in the hands of principals but which the state Department of Education has said isn’t being followed.

He said closely hewing to the law would cure a lot of CCSD’s ills, including the surge of violence.

“It allows the parents, the teachers, the students, administrations, the community of each school, of which there are 366, to… have a lot to do with their governing,” he said.

Romero has lived in Las Vegas for 54 years and has been in education advocacy for about as long, forming the first Latino student organization at UNLV in 1969. As a parent, he has always had a child in local schools since 1978. His youngest is set to graduate from high school this year.

After a long career in community organizing and government relations, Romero entered the race after he said a couple of other potential candidates shied away from working with the current board and the “tenor” of its operations.

“I’m a man who’s mature, who’s been around, and very few things like that faze me,” he said.

Brenda Zamora

Occupation: Multimedia producer

Children in CCSD: Two

Zamora wants to improve communications between CCSD and the people they serve.

That includes making bilingual videos summarizing school board meetings — which are often lengthy evening affairs that families cannot attend — and being responsive to individual constituents. As a parent of a student who receives special education services, she understands how disconnects can happen in trying to advocate for her child’s education.

“Constituents are trying to reach out to their trustees, and there’s no response, there’s no email back, phone calls back, and that’s frustrating,” Zamora said. “You are a representative.”

She’d also like to maintain consistent decorum at board meetings — not all commenters are held to the two-minute limit, leading to tension and outright chaos, she said.

The Mojave High graduate now works for Make It Work Nevada, a progressive social justice organization that advocates for women and working families of color. Civic engagement was already a cornerstone of her professional life.

“I always said you can’t complain if you’re not getting out to vote, so I kind of took that in a personal way of, I can’t complain and not try to do anything about it,” she said.

District F | Southwest Valley

Jamil Bey

Bey did not respond to multiple phone calls and does not have an email address or campaign website listed in candidate filing papers.

Irene Bustamante Adams

Occupation: Deputy director, Workforce Connections

Children in CCSD: None. Two grown children attended CCSD schools.

Bustamante Adams brings her experience in workforce development, the Nevada Legislature and being a mom and grandma to her campaign.

As deputy director and chief strategy officer for the nonprofit Workforce Connections, which connects employers to a network of One-Stop Career Centers that provide education, training, and employment opportunities, she is already working with CCSD. Jara has invited her group to place a career center in Central Technical Training Academy, the district’s new trade school opening this fall.

“Not everybody’s going to go to a four-year college. About 50% of the kids that are graduating (from high school) are not going to go to college right away,” she said. “You’re not less of a person just because you don’t go to college right away.”

Between workforce development and an earlier career in the corporate offices at MGM Resorts International, Bustamante Adams served in the state Assembly as a Democrat. Her eight years in Carson City, between 2011-2019, taught her about policy, reaching across the aisle and building consensus — all relevant to the school board, she said.

Her 2-year-old grandson, her first grandchild, will be in kindergarten in three years, and that motivates her now, she said.

Jay Calhoun

Occupation: Information technology

Children in CCSD: Four

Calhoun wants fiscal transparency, stricter evaluations of teachers and administrators, more of a voice for parents, a back-to-basics approach to academics — and focus.

“Clark County School District has ADHD,” he said. “They see issues, but there’s no follow-through, and they move to the next issue.”

Calhoun has coached football and soccer at Desert Oasis and Rancho high schools, driven a bus and been a school-based IT worker. He now works outside the district. But all four of his children remain in CCSD, with a fifth on the way. His eldest will be a freshman at Desert Oasis in the fall.

He’s running to be a voice for his kids, he said.

David Coram

Occupation: Retired police officer and educator

Children in CCSD: None

Coram is retired twice over, giving him the time to be a full-time school board member.

He was a sheriff’s deputy in California, ran Indian casinos in California and Oregon, and then, still diversifying, taught school in California and Nevada. His final year in the classroom was last school year, when he taught media production and journalism at Western High.

“When I was in law enforcement for 17 years, I was there long enough that the people I was arresting when I first got there, I was starting to put their kids in jail,” he said. “I thought, I’m not really doing society anything great here, so why don’t I go into something else, where I can save some kids instead of put them in jail.”

That’s what led him to education. As a teacher, he had 200 students at a time. As a school board member, he could impact all 300,000-plus in CCSD, he said.

In addition to his classroom and curriculum-writing experience, Coram cites his law enforcement background for tamping down on campus violence and casino management for his fiscal know-how.

“I have experience and 40 hours a week of time,” he said.

Danielle Ford (incumbent)

Occupation: Online marketing strategist

Children in CCSD: Two

Ford, running for a second term, doesn’t think the seat she occupies is “hers.” But she has the courage of her convictions as a representative.

“I think that I’ve proven that I always listen to constituents. I’m accessible, and my votes are always reflective of what is best for the people,” she said. “Even if it’s the dissenting vote, I always do my due diligence of explaining why, on the record, I’m voting a certain way, and it’s always reflective of what constituents want.”

When she voted against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff, she listed several criticisms of the district’s broader pandemic response and said employees clearly weren’t happy.

She voted to terminate Jara, and not to reverse the decision — starting on the prevailing side and ending up on the losing side.

Ford acknowledges that she’s been at the center of board dysfunction but only for the current board. The CCSD board has long been fraught with conflict, and maybe people just weren’t paying attention before the pandemic brought the spotlight on schools, she said.

“That dysfunction was already there before I ran. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I ran, because I’m great at bringing people together, working with teams, coming up with solutions that work for everybody, finding middle ground amongst people of different ideologies,” she said.

Liam MacCaul

Occupation: Medical office practice manager

Children in CCSD: Two

MacCaul was driven to run because of safety issues. His oldest daughter attends Desert Oasis High School, which saw back-to-back hard lockdowns and then some after a high-profile week of fights, weapons and threats in March.

She didn’t want to go back.

“As a parent, to know that they’re supposed to go here every day and be safe and learn, and now they don’t want to go because of indiscretions from others, it’s heartbreaking,” he said.

Students need to know that rules are to be followed, and the schools should beef up security — more adults monitoring the halls, cameras in classrooms, controlled entry and exit, better locks for doors, he suggested.

MacCaul also wants staff to feel valued, and for the trades to be promoted alongside traditional academics.

“I’m just a guy. I’ve never run for office before. I’ve never worked for the school district. My only concern is what (kids are) going to develop to be. If we have lost sight of that with people on the board currently, where their decisions are made because they want to run for something else or whatever it might be, we need to get back to making the best decisions for the kids,” he said. “I’m just a dad that’s trying to do that.”

Kali Fox Miller

Occupation: Lawyer

Children in CCSD: None

An attorney in the financial tech industry with a heart for education — she’s the president-elect of the Nevada PTA — Fox Miller reached the general election for District F in 2018 before losing to Danielle Ford.

She is earnestly trying again.

She said she couldn’t have imagined all the board has gone through since 2018, though — pandemic and all.

“When I was gearing up to run again, I reached out to some of the people who have been in the education realm longer than I have been alive, and they all had the same consensus that I had, which is this is the worst we’ve ever seen it,” she said. “There’s not enough focus on academics, on the kids.”

Fox Miller started her education advocacy when she was a 15-year-old student at Advanced Technologies Academy and working as a paid peer tutor.

In addition to a platform of violence prevention, rigorous academics and retaining staff, Fox Miller has written a 12-page literacy plan that anchors her campaign website.

“As a CCSD board member, I want what most families want for their students,” she wrote. “Access to high-quality education throughout students’ entire academic careers, beginning with their earliest learning experiences and continuing through graduation.”

Tammi Musemici

Musemici did not respond to multiple emails and does not have a phone number or campaign website listed in candidate filing papers.

Erica Neely

Occupation: Homeschool tutor

Children in CCSD: None. Two grown children attended CCSD schools.

Neely wants the district to change before her school-aged children, who are currently home-schooled, go back to CCSD: bring back classic teaching methods and bring down violence.

“I want to really focus on reading, writing and math,” she said.

When one of her girls was in kindergarten, she struggled with reading. Neely attributed that to learning to read through sight words, or words that children memorize so they can jump-start their literacy. Her eldest learned to read through a traditional phonics-based method.

She moved her kids to a charter but was dissatisfied with bullying. Then the pandemic shutdown forced home-schooling, which they have kept up. But she would like her school-aged daughters, who are now 8 and 10, to return to public schools. (A mom of six ages 4 to 23, plus a licensed foster parent, she’s on the ballot as Erica “Mama Neely” Neely.)

She decided to run after a state law passed last year redefining what counts as social studies curriculum — the removal of government and the inclusion of civics, financial literacy and multicultural education — which irked homeschoolers who bristled at new regulations.

Neely describes herself as a “constitutional conservative” whose values are shaped by Christianity, family, liberty and pro-life.

Tim Vicario

Occupation: Teacher, CCSD-sponsored charter school

Children in CCSD: Two

Vicario wants to bring down class sizes and retain not only experienced teachers, but administrators.

CCSD continues to shed classroom teachers, and last year, about 50 veteran administrators took early retirement buyouts from the district.

“Is that what we needed during a pandemic?” he asked.

Vicario has a teacher’s perspective. He’s a one-time CCSD teacher now teaching middle school social studies at Innovations International Charter School, which CCSD sponsors. His wife is still with the district, teaching special education prekindergarten.

He earned a business degree and had a career in sales and marketing before taking an alternative route to teacher licensure in 2014.

The 1,400, give or take, teacher vacancies currently being advertised on CCSD’s jobs webpage are likely an undercount, he said.

Without permanent, fully licensed teachers in a classroom, there’s possibly a substitute teaching there instead. He said he knows great substitutes, but relying on subs isn’t fair for anyone.

“Would you want your kid in a long-term sub classroom?” he said. “Is that what you signed up for as a parent? Is that what you pay taxes for?”

District G | East Valley, North Henderson

John Carlo

Occupation: Warehouse worker and pizza delivery driver

Children in CCSD: None

As a Sunday School teacher at Las Vegas Japanese Community Church, Carlo prayed on his decision to run for school board.

“My heart is in it, and I believe God is leading me,” he said.

Carlo said he learned respect for schools as a boy in Texas, where his mother taught kindergarten. In Texas, he said, people respected their school communities and students didn’t even swear at their teachers.

He said his first move for CCSD would be to order a forensic audit of the district’s finances.

Carlo regularly attends board meetings and takes strongly conservative stances.

“I’m the realest cowboy in Las Vegas. I will take the hardest stand,”he said. “I will take a firm stand on standing up for the community.”

Linda Cavazos (incumbent)

Occupation: Marriage and family therapist

Children in CCSD: One grandchild. Five grown children and two grown grandchildren have graduated from CCSD schools.

Cavazos wants to continue to fight for a safe, stable classroom environment.

To the first of those: student violence, which, as a therapist who works with children, Cavazos is uniquely positioned to dissect. The violence in schools didn’t happen overnight, she said.

“I really want to follow through on that. I don’t want to keep seeing short-term, crisis-reactive Band-Aids put on these problems,” she said. “We need to look at the root causes of what is going on.”

And to the second: teacher retention. Resignations are rolling in like a “tsunami,” and the district has again been reactive, not proactive, she said.

She was a teacher here once herself, spending 15 years at Basic High. She speaks glowingly of her time in Henderson’s oldest high school.

She wants teachers and families to stay with CCSD. She said she sees them all as real people, not data points.

She also speaks firmly that she will keep asking hard questions of leaders, even when she’s in the minority vote, because she represents the people.

“I wasn’t elected by the superintendent,” she said. “I wasn’t elected by the other trustees.”

KC Freels

Occupation: Information technology

Children in CCSD: One

Freels said his first-grader has supportive, caring teachers at Whitney Elementary who work with him to get his son the special education services he needs. But Freels says not all children in CCSD have fathers like him to advocate for them. So, while he’s motivated to give his son a good educational experience as a trustee, he cares for all kids.

Overall, CCSD is foundering, he said. According to state data, fewer than half of students at all grade levels are proficient in English language arts and less than a quarter are at grade level in math. The district’s graduation rate is 83%.

“I guess that’s OK in baseball,” he said. “When you’re talking about sending kids out into the world to be successful, I don’t know that writing off 20% of kids is acceptable.”

Immediately, Freels said he would tackle school safety. Fixing safety issues could make some academic issues and teacher retention struggles take care of themselves, he said.

“How are they supposed to learn math if they’re scared? How are the teachers supposed to do their jobs well and care about these kids if they’re worried about their personal safety?” he said. “We’ve got to get order back in the schools.”

Dominick Giovanni

Giovanni did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls and does not have a campaign website listed in candidate filing papers.

Adam LaRosa

Occupation: Convention setup and logistics

Children in CCSD: None

LaRosa said he would consider moving his four children from charter schools to CCSD if he felt the environment and curriculum were appropriate.

“We’re on a path toward destruction for this generation,” he said. “They’re trying to dumb down the curriculums, they’re watering them down constantly, they’re adding other curriculums that are completely unnecessary especially at an elementary level.” The latter is a reference to health and sexual education.

He joined Teamsters Local 631 not long after graduating from Las Vegas High School and also served in the U.S. Navy, so now at 42 he is vested in a comfortable enough pension that he is semi-retired and has the time to devote to the school board.

He said would take a sharp eye to curriculum, violence and broad transparency.

“I want the parents and the constituents to know what’s going on in our school system at all times. It shouldn’t be a question of having to go to a school board meeting every two weeks and saying ‘hey board, what’s going on with this, this and this,’” he said. “They should be able to do the research or be able to easily find what they need to know about whatever situation they’re curious about.”

Chuck Summers

Occupation: Retired maintenance staffer, CCSD

Children in CCSD: Three grandchildren. Three grown children attended CCSD schools.

Summers joined CCSD as a custodian in 1985 and worked his way into a supervisory position before retiring days before the pandemic took hold in 2020.

“One thing I’ve learned in my 35 years with CCSD: They still haven’t gotten it right,” he said. “They say they listen, but they’re not hearing what all these people are telling them.”

Public comment sessions at board meetings are short, students and staff don’t appear to get disciplined, the board is ineffective and toxic, and schools are violent, he said.

Summers is a Vietnam veteran who came to Vegas in 1972 when he was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base. His wife taught in CCSD for 36 years and now teaches at a charter school. His daughter teaches at a CCSD elementary school.

He said problem students feel untouchable because of less-punitive restorative justice practices. He said it seemed like a good idea, but was unfunded and now students are emboldened to act out.

“I would prefer they get it to work the way it’s supposed to, but I live in the real world,” he said.

Greg Wieman

Occupation: Retired educator

Children in CCSD: None

Wieman, a retired superintendent who most recently worked for the rural Eureka County School District, wants to address frayed relationships among school board members.

“Professionalism needs to be reinstituted,” he said. He also wants to prioritize safety, academic outcomes, and keeping effective teachers and staff.

He retired in 2016, capping off a 38-year career as a teacher, coach, school-level administrator and superintendent. Much of his career he worked in Michigan and Colorado.

He said he was “happily retired” to Vegas. Then a long-grown former student urged him to run, and he said he went for it to again serve kids. (Note: Wieman has written op-eds about education for the Sun.)

Eureka schools have about 300 students combined, maybe half the size of any given elementary school in CCSD. But whether they live in the inner city or remote northern Nevada, “kids are kids.”

“Kids need two things: They need to know you care about them and you want them to succeed,” Wieman said.