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Incumbent Irene Cepeda faces Jara critics in District D primary

Five candidates will run for a seat representing District D on the Clark County School District Board of Trustees, the seat with the most schools.

District D, which encompasses downtown and the northeast valley, has more than 70 schools serving more than 57,000 students, according to numbers from the district.

Incumbent Irene Cepeda, who was elected in 2018 and currently serves as board president, is running against four challengers, including a district parent and a 50-year education advocate.

The school board race is nonpartisan and open to all voters. The two candidates with the most votes will advance to the general election in November, unless one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, in which case that person will be elected outright.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal spoke to all five candidates about their campaign for school board.

Irene Cepeda

Cepeda says she ran for school board in 2018 out of a love for her community and a love for education. She’s running for re-election because she feels an even stronger obligation to effect change for the school community through policy.

“Governance is not something you can find on the street. It’s something you have to work at, and it’s a skill set that requires time to learn,” she said. “You don’t see too many folks with board governance experience. I had to learn that on the job.”

Cepeda grew up in North Las Vegas and attended district schools. A parent of two children, one of whom attends school in the district, she currently works as the Title V Project Director for Nevada State College’s education school. She says her experience and time on the board make her the most qualified to serve from the current batch of candidates.

Her campaign priorities include implementing good governance and maintaining decorum and civility in listening to different viewpoints.

That perspective comes after a contentious four years that saw board members navigating the closure of schools during the pandemic, as well as the firing and subsequent rehiring of Superintendent Jesus Jara.

Cepeda was the swing vote that ultimately decided Jara’s fate, voting first to fire him and then to rehire him. “I’ve lost my own voice trying to find middle ground and consensus in a board so painfully divided,” she said in a statement at the time.

But Cepeda said she wants the board to be consistent and clear in its expectations for Jara and in evaluating him fairly moving forward. “A superintendent also creates a team. Any time you lose a superintendent, you lose that team,” she said. “I think they’ve done the best they can with what we have. … I think there’s absolutely room for growth.”

On the issue of school safety, Cepeda said it’s been difficult to hear the stories and testimonies from parents, students and teachers about violence at their schools but that many of the solutions require buy-in from different communities and establishing a long-term plan.

“It’s hard because you want to feel like tomorrow we’re going to hire all these teachers, we’re going to hire all these mental health professionals, but we know there are so many other systems that are broken at the moment,” she said. “I can understand the rage … but there’s only so much your rage can really do in terms of moving things and getting things done.”

Cepeda said she’d like to see adequate funding of education in the next four years, as well as a return to a “boring” method of board governance in which student outcomes are a majority of the focus at board meetings.

“At the end of the day our goal and our role is to be monitoring student outcomes, evaluating the superintendent and provide fiduciary oversight arm, in addition to being kind of that liaison to your community,” she said.

“The things I can control are making sure we have our goals, we’re monitoring those goals and that we make sure that we are on track to achieve them.”

Steven Conger

Steven Conger grew up in Las Vegas and attended district schools, and he’s worked as a substitute teacher since 2016. Conger has also worked as a lobbyist for a conservative parental rights group and says he’s running to give more power back to parents and individual schools.

“Because this is such an important time in your development at school, it’s really urgent to get it right,” he said. “We can’t keep having this problem where this large school district continues to have control over these local schools. We really need to give that control to those local schools so they have autonomy.”

Conger became a lobbyist after the Nevada Legislature began considering a bill that would have automatically opted students in to sex education.

Conger said that legislation would have changed the relationship between parents and the government.

His main campaign priority is ensuring parents have more say in what’s best for their children when it comes to school.

“As a teacher and even as a candidate, I don’t know what’s best for your child. CCSD also doesn’t know what’s best for your child. You know what’s best for your child,” he said. “We are secondary to that. We are support for you to decide what happens with your child, how best to teach your child.”

Conger said he hasn’t made a decision on his support for Jara but would like to see more longevity when it comes to the length of time that superintendents have historically served in the district.

He also said schools’ hands have been tied when it comes to discipline. Some teachers have questioned whether schools have been unable to discipline students after a restorative justice law passed in 2019 required schools to implement practices that repair harm in lieu of suspending or expelling students in some circumstances.

Conger said the issue gets back to local control and that parents and administrators should work together to determine what their school community needs, whether that’s restorative justice or a zero-tolerance policy.

“Pull down power and give it back to the people who actually know their kids,” he said.

Tavorra Elliott

A single parent and a Las Vegas native, Tavorra Elliott attended five schools throughout the district. Now she says she’s running to make the district a better place for her own children.

“I just always wanted my own kids and the children around them to have more than what I had, because I feel like we didn’t have enough,” she said.

Elliott, a nail technician, is running on a platform of improving school safety, fiscal responsibility and increasing pay for teachers.

She also wants to improve communication between the district, administrators and parents. When it comes to her own children’s experience at school, Elliott said she felt like she had no choice but to run for the board in order to address their concerns.

“There were so many roadblocks stopping me … I was left feeling like I don’t have any other recourse,” she said. “My children say, ‘We don’t feel safe at school. We don’t feel happy at school. We don’t feel as if they give us anything.’ ”

Elliott says the district hasn’t done enough to address the issue of school safety and there aren’t enough police officers to adequately keep campuses safe. She hopes to double the number of officers at each school.

Elliott also said the violence in the district has risen to such a level that she doesn’t support any restorative justice policy that brings victims and perpetrators together in the same space. “There’s nothing that can really be restored,” she said. “You cannot restore a relationship that has been that severely broken.”

Elliott said she doesn’t support Jara’s leadership given the current state of the district. “When I say support, that means I’m going to hold up where you stand and where you’re coming from, and I cannot,” she said of Jara.

Elliott says she hopes to leave the district in a place where the community can trust the board, and where teachers and students feel safe coming to school again.

“We don’t have to stay right here. We don’t have to keep wondering what’s going to happen when we send our children to school,” she said.

“We can do anything as long as you feel safe.”

Fernando Romero

Fernando Romero has lived in Las Vegas for 55 years and has advocated for education for virtually that entire time. “In my opinion, there is nothing more powerful and more empowering than an education,” he said.

Romero, president of the Las Vegas-based group Hispanics in Politics, has worked with various nonprofits and organizations like the district, the U.S. Department of Education and the state superintendent of public instruction over the years to advocate for public education and the Latino community. His four children have all attended district schools, and his youngest son is a senior at East Career Technical Academy.

Romero is running for the school board now because he says there are too many wrongs that need to be righted throughout the district.

The race now pits him against Cepeda, who he says his organization recruited for the school board four years ago. Romero criticized Cepeda’s vote to reinstate Jara last fall and does not support the superintendent, saying Jara has not delivered on promises that he made when he first arrived in the state regarding the educational attainment of Nevada’s children.

Romero’s campaign priorities include addressing school violence, raising teacher pay, strengthening programs for English language learners, and fighting against school vouchers and privatization.

“Public education should be just that, for the public, and not for personal use by people who are well-to-do,” he said.

Romero said more attention needs to be paid to teacher recruitment and retention so the state doesn’t have to rely on those with a high school diploma to fill in as substitute teachers.

“That is a really major blow to public education. That is not the way to do it,” he said. “To have a school without teachers is like having a hospital without doctors.”

When it comes to school safety, Romero said he supports the idea of restorative justice, if it is correctly implemented, but does not support bringing serious offenders back into the same schools or classrooms where they committed the infraction.

If elected, Romero says he hopes he can unite the board to do the job they are elected to do. “We can’t continue this way. We have to change,” he said.

Brenda Zamora

During the pandemic, Brenda Zamora began translating school board meetings for Spanish-speaking families when she noticed the district did not provide Spanish translations.

“I realized doing that, ‘Oh, my folks are not knowing what’s going on,’ ” she said.

Zamora has lived in Las Vegas since 2006 and graduated from high school in the district. Zamora’s daughter has an Individualized Education Plan through the district and she says she understands the frustrations of dealing with a district that hasn’t always been responsive to the community.

“It was really kind of like, ‘We’re talking to an actual board at this point, like a wall,’ ” she said. “They’re not being responsive. They’re not even reaching out. … They aren’t even calling us back or emailing us back.”

Zamora works for Make It Work Nevada, a progressive advocacy group that organizes women of color around issues such as paid family leave and pay equity. She is running on a platform of improving communications from the district and advocating for working families in the district.

She said she’s heard from parents and family members about wanting to see more transparency and detailed information about the scope of school violence.

“We just wish you all would be in the schools, without cameras, be there because you care and want to know what’s happening,” she said.

Zamora has spoken at board meetings about her lack of support for Jara. She said the superintendent hasn’t improved the district and isn’t responsive to the community.

She said she fully supports a restorative justice approach to school discipline but believes the district is not implementing it to its full potential.

Ultimately, Zamora sees herself as an ally who will listen to the community.

“I will take time to listen to you because I’ve been that person where I’m like, ‘No one’s listening to me. Someone help me,’ ” she said. “And I just want to change that.”

Contact Lorraine Longhi at llonghi@reviewjournal.com. Follow @lolonghi on Twitter.

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