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Education reform plans draw flood of school board candidates

The statewide effort to overhaul Nevada’s beleaguered education system has drawn a flood of candidates to nearly a dozen open political seats in Clark County.

Driven by decades of poor student performance, more people than ever are competing for control of the Clark County School Board and State Board of Education. Twenty-five candidates hope to claim one of seven positions on the two boards charged with implementing the sweeping K-12 reforms that lawmakers approved last year.

And in advance of what many anticipate will be the “higher education session” of the Nevada Legislature, 11 candidates will vie for votes in three contests to sit on the governing board that oversees the state’s colleges and universities.

“It’s exciting, all of the attention being paid to reform and educational outcomes,” said a local education activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of seeming politically motivated.

The activist joined an informal group of business, civic and education leaders who over the past several months recruited or groomed a slate of candidates for the school and state board races.

Emboldened by a $400 million boost in the state’s budget for public schools, the group hopes to build momentum behind addressing Nevada’s education woes and to encourage better oversight of the multibillion-dollar budgets that the winning candidates will control.

“This isn’t something you change in just one (election) cycle,” the activist said. “There’s a core group of people who realize there’s a real need and real opportunity.

“There’s a long game in play.”

‘Widespread dissatisfaction’

In the short term, the group quietly backs six candidates in the education races: Peter Goatz, a candidate for the higher education board; Tim Hughes, Felicia Ortiz and Mark Newburn for the state board; and Mallory Levins and Adam Johnson for the School Board.

Johnson, a local director for Teach for America, joins four other challengers trying to unseat District C incumbent Linda Young.

That crowded race contrasts starkly with Young’s previous re-election bid in 2012, when she ran unopposed.

“I am just thrilled to see more and more people wanting to be engaged in the process and to engage in the debate on how we go about educating students,” Young said in March.

She represents parts of inner-city Las Vegas and North Las Vegas and noted the sheer number of candidates filing for each race likely reflected a growing sentiment in Southern Nevada.

“Absolutely, there is widespread dissatisfaction,” Young said, “and I think that’s warranted, quite frankly.”

A bevy of candidates is also vying for spots on Nevada’s higher education board, energizing what have long been low-key contests.

Four contenders, including Goatz, have emerged to unseat District 6 incumbent Michael Wixom, who has never been challenged during his 11-year tenure on the Board of Regents. Another race has drawn nearly $300,000 from a single candidate — a massive fundraising sum for a job paying less than $3,000 per year.

Some contenders say the public has become disillusioned by elected officials as colleges and universities struggle to develop a specialized workforce.

“I think people are just kind of fed up with the way things are in the political system as a whole,” said Patrick Carter, who hopes to claim Wixom’s seat. “It’s just time to … get rid of people that have kind of been juiced into the system and kind of start fresh.”

‘Moving education forward’

Education insiders have speculated that a “perfect storm” of timely issues may have convinced so many candidates to file for this election cycle.

They cited a national drive to improve schools, a newly unveiled plan to reorganize the Clark County School District and the more than two dozen education reforms that Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law last year.

“All of this percolation, if you want to call it that, about education over the past couple years has led to this interest,” UNLV history professor Michael Green said.

Another member of the candidate recruiting group — Miles Dickson, a principal at management consulting firm JA Barrett Co. — confirmed that theory.

He downplayed the formality of the group’s recruitment campaign and suggested many community leaders have realized the importance of the education positions.

“There’s a lot of people on the landscape right now who are really interested in moving education forward,” he said. “That was demonstrated not only in this last legislative cycle, but it’s been brewing for several years now: A recognition that the system is just not working.”

As for Green, he also highlighted the role that former trustees, state board members and regents continue to play in Nevada politics.

Voters frequently have promoted those officials to the county commission or state Assembly and Senate.

“I hate to think of it as a farm system, because these seats are vitally important in their own right,” Green said. “But politically, it’s very good training.

“If you can get through a school board meeting, where parents yell at you from both sides, chances are the Legislature looks relaxing. There’s at least less yelling.”

Review-Journal staff writer Ana Ley contributed to this report. Contact Neal Morton at nmorton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him at Twitter: @nealtmorton

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