Jim Clark: Should school boards be appointed or elected in Nevada?
Special to the Bonanza
It is clear from Gov. Sandoval’s recent state of the state speech that education reform will dominate the 2015 legislative session.
Sandoval plans to put Nevada on the same course as Florida where, beginning in 1990, then-Gov. Jeb Bush steered an education reform process that produced stunning results in improved student achievement.
To fund proposed Nevada reform measures, Sandoval has also taken on the task of nursing a large tax increase through his Republican majority legislature, not an easy task even for a GOP Governor.
Let’s examine a couple of the governor’s education proposals that will not require a tax increase: appointive rather than elected school boards, and realigning school district boundaries.
Although Sandoval did not specify the genesis of his proposal for appointive school trustees, it is pretty clear that it was the dysfunction of the Washoe County School Board in its recent dispute with former Superintendent Pedro Martinez.
Assemblyman Pat Hickey (R-Reno), frustrated by the arrogance of a majority of Washoe trustees over the Martinez dustup, is prepared to introduce such a bill.
Historically, according to Johns Hopkins University, lay governance of schools dates back over 200 years, fed by skepticism that distant legislatures could meet needs of local schools.
Starting in the 1990s it became evident that elected school boards in large, populous cities were failing students so, starting with Boston in 1991, mayoral control with appointed school boards began to emerge.
Following that more large cities switched to mayoral control including Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
Proponents of mayoral control point to low voter turnout for school board elections, lack of a clear line of accountability with elected school boards, longer superintendent tenure when he or she answers to a single boss, and trustees skilled in accounting, law, finance, etc., something left to chance with elected boards.
Opponents (including current Washoe County trustees) assert that governing bodies closest to the people govern best.
Also, the turnout for Washoe County School Board elections has historically been about the same as for county-wide and statewide elections, so there is no evidence of voter disinterest.
According to Kenneth Wong of Brown University, who has studied this school governance shift since 1992, there is evidence that an appointed school board results in somewhat better student performance, clearer educational goals and smaller class sizes when compared to the same district under an elected board.
However, a Rutgers University study concluded that there is “not yet convincing evidence that appointment of school board members produces … greater academic achievement.”
In Nevada school, districts follow county lines, and larger counties have several cities within their borders, so Hickey is considering having his bill provide that county commissioners appoint school boards much as they now appoint planning commissions.
Sandoval’s proposal to combine school districts with small enrollments and divide up the Clark and Washoe districts is also worth a look.
Clark County has 330,000 students, the fifth largest in the nation; Washoe has 66,000 students. The next five largest counties have student enrollments ranging from 3,000 to 10,000, but the eight smallest counties range from 100 to 1,000 students … many less than Incline/Crystal Bay.
At present, each county must have a superintendent, staff, a school board and administrative headquarters.
It seems as though consolidations could result in more efficient use of education dollars.
At the other end of the scale, both Clark and Washoe could be divided into smaller school districts to give parents and voters a closer relationship with their school boards whether appointive or elected.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on both the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.