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School board deadlocks in 3-3 vote on public comment changes

Updated March 1, 2023 - 7:53 pm

The Clark County School Board deadlocked in a 3-3 vote Wednesday on whether to reconsider changes made last year to a public comment policy.

Since a majority vote was required to rescind the changes, it means the policy remains in effect.

Trustees Evelyn Garcia Morales, Lola Brooks and Katie Williams voted no on reconsidering the policy. Irene Bustamante Adams was absent.

In August, the board voted 4-3 to approve the changes, including having only one public comment period on non-action items just before a meeting adjourns and eliminating one at the beginning.

Trustee Lisa Guzman was among those who originally voted in favor. But she requested an item for Wednesday’s work session to reconsider the decision.

The board has faced criticism from some district employees, parents and community members who say the changes have stifled commenters who can’t spend hours sitting through an entire meeting waiting to address trustees.

Guzman told the Review-Journal Monday she thought it was critical to bring the policy back for review.

“Since we have changed the public comment policy, we are not hearing from students anymore,” she said.

The student voice is important because “every vote that we take affects them,” Guzman said.

Guzman told fellow trustees Wednesday she wanted to bring the policy back so they can figure out a way to make public comment work because “currently, it is not working for the public.”

She also said the board should hear public comments on everything it considers, including information-only items.

When the board voted Wednesday on a motion to reconsider, Garcia Morales voted in favor, but later said she made a mistake and cast her vote in error.

A second vote was taken and she voted no, but a screen displaying votes erroneously showed the motion passed. Williams voted by phone, not using the technology in the board room.

Board attorney Nicole Malich advised the board to take an oral vote to clear up the record.

Changes after the COVID-19 pandemic

Last year’s change was the first revision to the district’s public comment policy since 2017. It came after long, contentious School Board meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, there have been fewer public commenters and shorter meetings.

The Review-Journal reviewed recent School Board agendas for the state’s 17 school districts. Every district except Clark and Washoe counties appear to have a public comment period toward the beginning of their meetings, while some also have a second comment period just before the end.

Public commenters’ faces are also no longer seen on video while Clark County board meetings are being streamed live online, a change that happened separate from the policy changes after some speakers’ comments went viral on social media sites.

The change was made in June in order to streamline the business being conducted at meetings, the district said via email Tuesday in response to a Las Vegas Review-Journal inquiry.

“The procedures were implemented to curtail harassment, bullying, and negative audience interactions, whether in-person or online,” the district said.

Trustee comments

Trustee Linda Cavazos — who voted “no” on the policy change in August — said she appreciated Guzman bringing back the item for reconsideration.

The board needs to prioritize that the meetings are business meetings, “but we work for the community and they have a right to be able to do public comment,” Cavazos said.

If the board is suppressing any opportunity to do that, Cavazos said — noting she believes the current policy is doing that — the board needs to look at maybe finding a compromise to tweak the policy and improve it.

Garcia Morales, the board president, said she declined a request to bring the item to a regular board meeting because under board policy, agenda items should align with the board’s vision and district mission, and progress monitoring of district goals — not issues of management and operations.

She said she made the offer to bring it to a work session instead.

Garcia Morales said she wanted to be clear the board isn’t taking away anyone’s right to provide public comment.

The original request was to reconsider, but now “it seems like it’s taking legs of its own” and accusing the board of not giving voices to constituents, she said, noting that’s not accurate.

Trustee Lola Brooks said changes weren’t made to shorten meetings or for the convenience of board members. They were meant to be fair for everyone and provide an equal opportunity for people to have their voice heard, she said.

The board received legal advice against allowing students to speak first, she said.

Having two comment periods also wasn’t equitable, Brooks said, because some commenters got to speak during the first one while others didn’t.

Pushback on policy changes

About 10 people provided public comments Wednesday before the vote to reconsider, largely calling for the board to revisit the policy.

District employee Autumn Tampa said she believes the changes were brought forward to silence a few people and shorten board meetings.

Vicki Kreidel, an elementary school teacher and president of the National Education Association of Southern Nevada, said the most important thing is rebuilding trust between the district and public.

Bringing back the two public comment periods would make it easier and more accessible for people to give comments, she said.

Parent Jenna Robertson said board meetings often felt dangerous and threatening at times, and she feels changes had to take place. But she said the public comment changes were an overcorrection.

Ed Gonzalez, a community member representative on the Hickey Elementary school organizational team, said he spoke in support of the public comment changes at the time and for the most part, still agrees with them.

But he said he believes the item should be reconsidered, noting there are two new trustees.

Gonzalez said there could be tweaks to the policy, but he doesn’t believe it has had a chilling effect and he doesn’t think his voice has been lost.

Several written public comments were also submitted at a meeting last week urging trustees to reconsider the policy. The meeting drew several public commenters calling for school police reform following an altercation near Durango High School between an officer and a Black student in early February.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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