(Karen Gray/NPRI) – Is the Clark County School District a “political machine”?
According to the widely used online encyclopedia, wikipedia.org, “A political machine … is a disciplined political organization in which an authoritative boss or small group commands the support of a corps of supporters and business (usually campaign workers), who receive rewards for their efforts.”
By that definition, evidence would suggest the district does in fact qualify.
On the other hand, some authorities — such as Britannica.com — would argue that, historically, political machines have been party organizations, and that therefore the officially non-partisan CCSD, with both Democrat and Republican board members, would not qualify.
So it depends on the definition.
On a more substantive level, however, the question arises because by almost any definition, the Clark County School District is — and for decades has been — a Big Foot player in the political, fiscal and election life of Nevadans.
Not content to merely spend budgets that easily approximate those of Nevada’s entire state government, top officials of the Clark County School District also conduct large-impact, overtly political operations to ensure that maximum taxpayer dollars continue flowing into the district — regardless of the number of students it seriously fails.
In the course of these pursuits, CCSD appears to operate very much like the classic political machine, “the primary goal of” which, says Britannica, “is keeping itself in power rather than providing good government.”
Using your children for political gain
Clearly political operations to ensure maximum taxpayer dollars for the district have become almost routine. In 2003, district officials approved harnessing unwitting small children to its funding machine.
In response to then-Gov. Kenny Guinn’s proposal for a $1.1 billion tax hike, then-CCSD public affairs director Joyce Haldeman — now a district associate superintendent — in a meeting with district department heads relayed the idea that students could make and send Valentine’s Day cards urging legislators to raise taxes. In March 2003, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Marcia Neel, the district’s coordinator of secondary fine arts programs, had thereafter e-mailed art teachers, asking them to conscript students into the cause.
According to the article, thousands of Valentines made their way to the Grant Sawyer government building, many with the phrase, “Have a Heart, Support Education,” a phrase that Neel had suggested.
Several hundred cards went to the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, where lawmakers were invited to peruse them. “Obviously a lot of time and effort went into it,” Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Lorne Malkiewich told the Review-Journal. “Many were signed by every member of the class. There were thousands of signatures.”
But student learning time isn’t the only district resource used to influence legislators. The district also uses its in-house e-mail system to mobilize CCSD’s tens of thousands of employees to lobby state lawmakers against any reductions in appropriations.
Last January, with Nevada facing a huge drop in tax revenues and word leaking out from Carson City that Gov. Jim Gibbons was drafting a more austere state budget, Clark County Superintendent Walt Rulffes e-mailed district employees.
He reminded them that CCSD “encourages” employees to communicate with legislators and that the school district’s equipment could be used to do so during non-contract hours, such as lunch time.
The day after the governor’s State of the State message proposed significant cutbacks — including a temporary 6 percent salary reduction and freezes in longevity and step increases for all state employees, including teachers — Rulffes sent employees another e-mail.
“Obviously, enactment of [the Gibbons] proposals would be painfully regressive and destructive to the system we have been struggling to improve for years,” he wrote.
“It is important to remember … that before these proposals can be codified,” said Rulffes, “they must go through the legislative process. You can be certain that the K-12 Community — superintendents, trustees, employee organizations, parent groups and others — will be a force in the Legislature as we seek more solutions to Nevada’s economic and education problem.”
Just before thanking employees for their loyalty, Rulffes reminded them, “it is not appropriate to engage in political advocacy during the contract day, but it is appropriate for you to engage in the process.”
Ironically, this encouragement from the district’s chief officer to engage in political advocacy came during the employees’ contract day — at 7:36 a.m.
Union propaganda on taxpayers’ time
Back in 2003, it wasn’t much different. While teachers were being asked by CCSD administration to encourage unwitting school children to send pleading Valentine cards to legislators, the district teacher union was authorized to march teachers into meetings held on the taxpayers’ time — and dime.
“We were marched into a teacher meeting during school hours and it was held by two officers of the union,” recalls Chip Mosher, a CCSD high school teacher, of a meeting at his school. “They told us we needed to vote for the Kenny Guinn plan. We needed to get on our computers, school computers, any computers, after hours — even though they were holding this meeting during contract hours. We needed to get everybody we knew to back the Kenny Guinn package.”
Offended by the partisan politics, Mosher, rather than e-mail support for the tax hike, protested the partisan politics in an e-mail to legislators and school board trustees.
“I don’t care if the politics are in my favor — or against my favor. Once you allow politics in, then you have to let the Nazis in to preach. You have to let everybody in because it is public education,” Mosher told NPRI. “You cannot bring partisan politics into a school building during school hours, ever.”
Mosher explained, “There were teachers who didn’t agree. The union shouldn’t be allowed to brow beat them and tell teachers what they should and shouldn’t be doing politically. It was dead wrong and I said so.”
When word got back to CCSD, things got bad for Mosher. He was charged with misuse of district computers and an investigation was opened. Mosher received admonitions to his employee folder and was forced to defend himself in a discipline hearing.
Today, Mosher, an opinion columnist for CityLife magazine and still a CCSD teacher, regularly faces innuendo and rumors of ongoing efforts to fire him, he says. Just this spring after receiving an e-mail on the school district’s Interact system touting Dina Titus as a wonderful politician who supports education, Mosher hit “reply-all” and sent an e-mail. It objected to the message he had just received as inappropriate for the district e-mail system and sought to balance it with his own e-mail denouncing Titus, saying she has never done anything to help teachers. Again, Mosher faced an investigation.
CCSD’s parent-mobilization database
Kids and the Clark County School District’s roughly 30,000 employees are not the only people CCSD officials conscript into their political initiatives vis-à-vis Nevada lawmakers. When the 2011 Nevada Legislative Session begins, the district wants to have a massive network of parents and vendors button-holing lawmakers.
Last month, when trustees met at Lundy Elementary School on Mount Charleston to discuss their strategic plans for next year, on top of the list was creating a legislative action database. Trustees agreed to spend the next four months contacting parent groups, business chambers, homeowners associations, city councils and anyone else they can think of, urging people to make themselves available to the district’s lobbying/communication network to be called into action during the upcoming legislative session. At every opportunity, trustees pledged, they will print and hand out cards for people to fill out, to go into the political operations database.
“Every list you can get your hand on, or opportunity you have to pass out the cards for the next four months, do it. It [the database] will only be a useful database for legislative action if it has names in it,” advised Dale Erquiaga, until recently CCSD’s government affairs director.
Not only will trustees work to create a massive database for lobbying efforts, but they agreed to use their January community linkage board meeting to organize parent groups in the effort. According to board discussions at Lundy, the January meeting will bring together all trustees’ parent groups to discuss how to work together to form a “lobbying or communication network.”
Million-dollar lobbying operation
In addition to the army of citizen lobbyists that CCSD officials plan to launch into action next year, they will also, of course, send official professional lobbyists to Carson City.
Since 2005, the Clark County School District has spent more than $1 million of its general operating funds on lobbying efforts, government records indicate.
According to expense reports filed with the Nevada Department of Taxation — reports mandated by law when school districts spend more than $6,000 on lobbying in a single legislative session — the Clark County School District has expended just shy of $1.2 million for lobbying over the past three legislative sessions, with $781,827 going to CCSD salaries and $262,669 going to contracted lobbyists between the 2005 and 2007 sessions.
In the same period, Nevada’s other 16 school districts, combined, reported spending $309, 625, most of which, $282, 625, was by the Washoe County School District.
In the taxation department’s summary reports on lobbying, CCSD appears near the top of the lists. In 2007, CCSD reported the highest lobbying expenditure of all Nevada local governments — $427,363.
Punish your foes
Another way the district appears to resemble a classic political machine is that it frequently uses some of the huge public resources entrusted to it in ways that seem designed to punish perceived political foes.
As noted above, when teacher Chip Mosher protested the partisan politics and dragooning of teachers by the school district and the teacher union, he was reprimanded and subjected to discipline hearings.
Other CCSD employees also get grief when they actively oppose the district’s party line.
Priscilla Rocha is director of Adult English Language Acquisition Services for the school district and a former Nevada Board of Education representative for District 5. In 2006, after she organized an area meet-the-candidates night at a community center, Rocha suddenly found herself accused of criminal misdeeds.
At the town-hall-style meeting were candidates Sheila Moulton, the incumbent trustee, and her challenger, Martin Dean Dupalo. However, the audience of an estimated 1,000 largely Hispanic parents and activists spent a good deal of time complaining angrily of inferior education and services in their neighborhood schools, and directed much of their ire at Moulton.
At a subsequent public meeting of the CCSD Board of Trustees, according to witnesses, Trustee Moulton — still visibly upset — called for a criminal investigation of Rocha. The issue, she said, was whether or not Rocha had used CCSD resources to organize the meeting, in violation of Nevada law.
The subsequent inquiry went nowhere, however, as evidence mounted that Rocha had organized the meeting on her own time, without CCSD resources. Nevertheless, Rocha still appears to have paid a price: Her program was moved under another administrator. And she herself has since been denied reclassification or promotions.
Whether or not district employees can use public resources in pursuit of clearly political goals appears to frequently depend on whether top CCSD officials personally support those goals.
For example, recent CCSD mileage claims show that since filing her candidacy on March 1, school board Trustee Carolyn Edwards continued to seek mileage reimbursement for driving her personal vehicle to official appointments. During that time, witnesses have regularly observed Edwards displaying on her vehicle a magnetized campaign advertisement endorsing herself for reelection to the school board. The mileage claims, for the period between March 1 and August 30, seek $1,443.50 in reimbursements.
Similarly, the trunk of Trustee Moulton’s car has since this summer displayed a campaign sticker endorsing Erin Cranor, candidate for Moulton’s District G seat. For the three months beginning June 1, Moulton sought mileage reimbursements of $455.
But while district bigwigs frequently get the benefit of the doubt, alleged infringements of policy by school district employees with differing politics can produce quick retribution.
Just last month, CCSD officials pulled in another teacher for investigatory interview. This time it was Silverado High teacher Scott Austin, a Republican candidate for Clark County clerk and also parliamentarian for the Clark County Republican Committee. Austin was notified of discipline proceedings after his campaign sent out a blast e-mail to district employees over the district’s Interact e-mail network, introducing Austin as a candidate and a CCSD teacher.
Although Austin is charged with violating the district’s Acceptable Use policy and with unprofessional communication to fellow co-workers, he says that CCSD’s questions to him have focused primarily on learning how he got his e-mail list. Upon advice of his attorney, Austin refused to answer, arguing that such information is proprietary.
Austin currently is awaiting disciplinary proceedings. CCSD, asked about the case, called it a personnel issue and declined to comment — with the exception of telling NPRI that Interact e-mail addresses are not public information. When asked if the many Interact e-mails listed on many school websites are public information, or if the many e-mail addresses are CCSD proprietary information, the district failed to respond.
(Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org)