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What are they hiding? CCSD policy muzzles elected trustees

Updated January 12, 2024 - 2:55 pm

Clark County School Board members elected to represent voters have declined to comment about questionable school district spending, citing a policy that directs them to go through the board chairperson or public relations staff.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal contacted the board members regarding a recruitment trip taken by 17 staffers and school principals to Florida’s Miami Beach over the Fourth of July holiday last year. Citing the policy, board members referred a reporter to the board’s president, who did not respond to requests for comment, and to the district’s communications office staff, who also did not provide an interview.

“Unfortunately, I can’t continue this conversation,” board member Lola Brooks said in November. “I don’t have the authority to speak on behalf of the district or board.”

She and four other current board members, along with a former member, voted in September 2021 to adopt the Board Public Communications policy, which limits the speech of individual members, who also are referred to as trustees.

For this story, board President Evelyn Garcia Morales once again did not respond to requests for an interview. The district’s communications office again did not grant an interview.

Policies such as the one adopted by the board are a growing trend that weakens the accountability of elected officials, critics say.

“Folks in these elected offices are always able to give a no comment if they wish, and that kind of silence can speak volumes,” said Patrick File, an associate professor of media law at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.

But a formal policy gives the board members cover and “in a way takes away the accountability for refusing to speak,” he said.

The board’s policy states that trustees shall refrain from speaking individually to the media “regarding Board or District matters that are under policy or program deliberation.”

It requires them in some instances to defer to the board president, while stating that the president “shall not speak on behalf of the Board on issues that have not (been) voted upon or have not been discussed.”

The policy does not prevent individual trustees from speaking about their own votes after an issue has been decided. It also states that trustees “should use their own best judgment for their own individual communications.”

The board’s adoption of the policy reflects a growing trend in both the public and private sector to defer comment for news media to a supervisor or public information officer, said File, a board member of the Nevada Open Government Coalition.

“These elected boards, they want to have something of a unified message, and that’s understandable,” he said. However, such restrictions on speech can limit the public’s ability “to get insight into what the government is up to.”

No hires despite trip

When reached in November about the Miami Beach trip, board member Lisa Guzman, who had voted in favor of the policy, said that the only person who could speak for the board was its president, Garcia Morales. But Garcia Morales, who also voted in favor of the policy, did not respond to a reporter’s requests for comment.

The district’s policy puts the onus on the board president, File said, adding, “and if the president is someone who isn’t inclined to speak to media, it’s a black hole.”

The policy also could limit the number of qualified candidates for the office, he said.

Why would someone seek office, File asked, knowing there would be a “strict limitation to speak on these issues in your jurisdiction?”

The candidate pool can begin to shrink “if you know you’re going to get muzzled.”

The Review-Journal contacted each of the seven elected board members about the five-day trip to Miami Beach that cost taxpayers about $37,000, excluding salaries. Only two candidates showed up at recruitment events around the Fourth of July holiday and neither applied for a job. The story highlighted other trips, though the district could not say how many teachers were hired as a result.

Board defers to staff

Asked if the trip was a good use of resources, board member Katie Williams said, “Thanks for reaching out. But this is a loaded and unfair question.”

Williams, who had voted in favor of the communications policy, said questions about the recruitment trip did not fall within the scope of the board.

“Look to the district communications department, as you should have in the first place,” she wrote in a text message.

The board policy also states that district questions should be answered by staff. “Board Trustees approached with inquiries about District issues should defer without comment to the Superintendent or their designee, who will speak for the District.”

In response to an interview request for this story, the communications office directed the reporter to public discussions by the board and provided the date the communication policy was adopted. The board voted to approve the policy without discussion, minutes of the meeting show.

The head of the local teachers union criticized not only the trip to Miami Beach but the board’s unwillingness to discuss it.

Questions about recruitment efforts and about this trip specifically “are the purview of the board of trustees, starting with Garcia Morales,” said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association. The board’s adoption of the policy “demonstrates opaqueness and not transparency.”

Two-thirds of new teachers come from Nevada, and the bulk of the remainder from Western states, he said.

“When you see trips that are kind of outside that sphere, unless they produce results, they certainly should raise a red flag,” he said.

The board should be scrutinizing the Miami Beach trip in particular, he said. “Nobody’s looking for a job on the Fourth of July weekend,” he said.

File, the UNR professor, said government officials elected to represent voters should be able to discuss district issues.

“We’re all poorer for a lack of willingness to explain decision-making or discuss what a board is thinking,” he said. “The public should push back. These boards ultimately do answer to the public.”

Patrick File’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @MaryHynes1 on X. Hynes is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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