Ethics panel: School chief's housing fund OK, but 'poor policy'

The Clark County School Board was within the law to authorize a privately funded housing allowance for new Superintendent Dwight Jones, according to the Nevada Commission on Ethics.

But it was "poor policy" and contrary to the intent of state prohibitions against giving gifts to public officials, commission members said.

The Clark County School District superintendent now has clearance to accept payments from $22,040 in the fund, but private donors should not be given the chance to "reward, compensate, control or influence a governmental employee's decision or services," the commission's attorney, Yvonne Nevarez-Goodson, wrote in a March 18 letter to Jones.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, which represents district teachers, raised objections to the fund in October when the School Board approved Jones' annual compensation package worth $358,000.

"The Ethics Commission sent a mixed message," Murillo said. "They said the School Board could do it, but they shouldn't."

Murillo said he hopes board members learn "not to do this again."

School Board President Carolyn Edwards was traveling Tuesday and was unavailable for comment.

School Board member Deanna Wright could not speak directly to the commission's advisory opinion because she had not seen it.

"What I do know is that we checked with the attorney general before we set the fund up," Wright said.

The Public Education Foundation, a not-for-profit group that is separate from the school district, is accepting the donations on the district's behalf.

"We asked that donors be listed on the (foundation's) website for complete transparency," Wright said.

The School Board justified the housing fund as necessary to expedite Jones' move from Colorado, where he was the public education commissioner.

Under Jones' contract, he is allowed to accept up to $5,000 a month for his housing expenses for up to eight months. Jones started working for the district on Dec. 15.

After staying at a Residence Inn, Jones said he leased a house last month in Southern Highlands, a golf course community with a private spa, in southwest Clark County near Interstate 15.

Housing prices there start at $300,000, but some luxury homes are listed in the $1 million to $2 million range, according to the Southern Highlands Realty website.

Jones said he plans to lease for at least year before he buys a home in Clark County. His family is still making the transition from Denver.

Before he decided to access the housing allowance, Jones said he sought the opinion of the Ethics Commission.

Because Jones negotiated the contract before he became the superintendent, the commission determined that he was not yet a "public officer or employee using your position to secure unwarranted privileges."

Also, superintendents are not included in Nevada's legal definition for public officers, who are required to file financial disclosure statements. The Ethics Commission has submitted a bill draft to the Legislature to extend the definition of public officers to school district superintendents.