Complaint: District panel breaks law

A Clark County School District committee formed to address low-performing schools has been operating outside the state’s open meeting law, a practice that is now the subject of a Review-Journal complaint to the Nevada attorney general.

The Superintendent’s Educational Opportunities Advisory Committee has met twice this month without advertising its meetings or agenda to the public.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes contends the committee is not subject to the open meeting law because members were chosen by him and not appointed by School Board members, who are elected officials.

But the advisory committee membership list initially released by the district said that six of the 13 committee members were appointed by School Board members. Michael Rodriguez, a district spokesman, said, “That probably was not the best wording.”

“They were not selected by anyone other than the superintendent,” Rodriguez said.

An advisory committee formed by elected officials would have to comply with the open meeting law.

“NRS 241 clearly states that the actions of public bodies should ‘be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly,’ proper notice given to the public and advance material pertaining to the meeting be provided to those who request it,” Review-Journal Editor Thomas Mitchell wrote Monday in a complaint to the attorney general’s office that requested corrective action.

School Board members Terri Janison, Carolyn Edwards and Linda Young said all School Board members were asked to appoint or recommend community members to the committee.

“He asked us to submit names, and that’s it,” Edwards said. “The bottom line is that it’s not a board committee.”

Edwards said that other school committees — on sex education, zoning, bond oversight and school naming — are subject to the law because they were formed by the School Board.

The advisory committee was created after the School Board in September scuttled a plan to address poor student performance at six schools in West Las Vegas, which is generally bordered by Carey Avenue to the north, Bonanza Road on the south, Interstate 15 on the east and Rancho Drive on the west.

The committee’s charge is to make recommendations to the superintendent, who will present a course of action to the School Board. The committee’s next meeting is slated for 1 p.m. Wednesday at district headquarters, 5100 W. Sahara Ave. The topic is “parent engagement.”

Maggie McLetchie, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the issue of who appointed committee members is a “red herring” because “it doesn’t matter.”

“The presumption of the law is openness,” McLetchie said.

Parents of children attending “troubled schools” and the public have a vested interest in attending these meetings, she said. Not advertising the meetings would seem to contradict the district’s often-stated goal of increasing parental involvement, McLetchie added.

A definition of what constitutes an advisory committee is not defined in the law, according to the attorney general’s handbook on the open meeting law. But Barry Smith, the executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said that “you shouldn’t select a committee in a way that circumvents the open meeting law.”

The handbook is explicit on this point, he said. On page 21, it states: “Informality in appointment … should not be an escape from (the law), to hold otherwise would encourage circumvention of the Open Meeting Law through the use of unofficial committees.”

The purpose of the law is to give the public confidence that their government policy is not the result of “backroom deals” or special favors, Smith said.

Rulffes said he is “not trying to shut out the public.” The public can attend and speak at the meetings. The committee is informal, “so I can gather input to take to the board,” he said.

Membership of the Superintendent’s Educational Opportunity Advisory Committee spans politics, community activism and education. Sonya Horsford, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, was appointed by Rulffes.

The committee includes three rotating members from the NAACP who share one position: Frank Hawkins, Wendell Williams and Richard Boulware, who were Young’s picks. Williams is a former state lawmaker who lost re-election after a series of scandals.

Another committee member is Susie Lee of the Nevada Women’s Philanthropy, which has given money to the district to create empowerment schools. The mission of empowerment schools is to produce better results through greater independence and accountability. Lee was picked by School Board member Chris Garvey.

Other committee members are Teresa Cooper, picked by School Board member Sheila Moulton; Dwayne McIntyre, picked by Janison; Bea Soares, picked by Edwards; and Javier Trujillo, picked by School Board member Larry Mason.

The remaining committee members — Kay Carl, Sylvia Lazos, Lily Lin, Jose Melendrez, Steve Linder and Yvette Williams — were appointed by Rulffes.

Robert McCord, a government professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a retired district administrator, is the group’s facilitator.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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