Newspaper column: School district tries to obliterate public records law

The Clark County School District has filed a legal action with the state Supreme Court that, if successful, could render the state’s strong public records law nearly meaningless and deprive the citizens in every jurisdiction in the state access to public records that enable them to keep an eye on the actions of public officials.

The brief filed earlier this month appeals a judge’s decision to award attorney fees and court costs to the Las Vegas newspaper after it prevailed in district court in its demand for public records about an investigation into a school trustee accused of discriminating against school district employees — clearly the sort of information to which voters should be privy. The school district’s brief itself calls the matter “of statewide public importance.”

The district takes the absurd position that the Nevada Public Records Act of 1993  which states, “The purpose of this chapter is to foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law …” — is self-contradictory because what is clearly stated in one paragraph is negated three paragraphs later. 

In one section the law states, “If the requester prevails, the requester is entitled to recover his or her costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in the proceeding from the governmental entity whose officer has custody of the book or record.” This is to ensure that citizens are not driven into bankruptcy in fighting a public agency with endless access to taxpayer money and can be made whole in order to fight again another day. Once the court says something is a public record, it is a public record and should have been freely accessed all along, but for the intransigence of some usually nameless bureaucrat.

The district cites another section of law that reads, “A public officer or employee who acts in good faith in disclosing or refusing to disclose information and the employer of the public officer or employee are immune from liability for damages, either to the requester or to the person whom the information concerns.”

Clearly this was intended to protect employees and employers from liability for such things as harm to public reputation or release of trade secrets. Who is to say what is good or bad faith?

The district brief repeatedly calls on the court to construe “legislative intent,” yet the very cites from legislative records clearly show the legislators intended to grant costs to public records requestors who prevail in court, and immunity from damages was another topic entirely.

The brief quotes from legislative minutes from May 3, 1993, describing comments by then Nevada Press Association Executive Director Ande Engleman, who was clearly not a legislator, answering a question from Assembly Subcommittee on Government Affairs Chairman Rick Bennett as to whether taxpayers should cover the costs of “frivolous” suits. 

The minutes show Engleman responding, “Court costs and attorneys’ fees were granted only when it was a denial of what was clearly a public record [bad faith]. Therefore, she did not think there would be frivolous lawsuits.” The district attorneys helpfully bold-faced and italicized and added the “bad faith” in brackets, even though her remarks indicated there would be no costs awarded if the suit failed.

The brief for some inexplicable reason failed to include lawmaker Bennett’s “legislative intent” in the very next paragraph, “If an agency head truly withheld a record which should have been public, Mr. Bennett said he hoped the court would penalize the agency in some way by making them pay the costs.” Now that is legislative intent.

The school system’s attorneys repeatedly argue lawmakers intended the “good faith” immunity clause to negate the clear language that attorney fees and court case are to be awarded if a record was wrongly withheld — an absurdity. 

Neither does the brief pay any heed to subcommittee minutes from four days later in which the panel voted to add the word “reasonable” to the costs and fees section of the law and then immediately segued into a discussion of immunity for “good faith in disclosing or refusing to disclose” being “immune from liability for damage.”

Lawmakers clearly saw the two sections as not contradictory. Neither did District Court Judge Timothy Williams who determined there was no ambiguity between the two adjacent sections of the same law. Neither should the Nevada Supreme Court. 

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

 

Proposed CCSD teacher contract gives union a lock on future funds

Screen shot from video explaining teacher union contract will give teachers 70 percent of any future funding that exceeds the minimum necessary to fund the Clark County School District.

It’s not a contract. It’s surrender.

The morning newspaper reported a week ago that the Clark County School District and its teachers union had agreed on a three-year contract that includes $51 million salary increases and health insurance contributions recently awarded in arbitration. The teachers are to vote on the contract Thursday.

Today, the paper’s political columnist reported on a little detail about the contract not previously mentioned. If in the future the state Legislature provides funding that is greater than the school district’s minimum needs, 70 percent of that additional money must go to compensate teachers — not hire more teachers, but pay more for the existing ones.

Columnist Victor Joecks remarked, “So (Superintendent Jesus) Jara’s plan to improve education is to pay the same people doing the same job more money. Talk about another example of how you can’t fix a broken system by pouring more money into it.”

Joecks also linked to a video posted online by Union Executive Director John Vellardita explaining the contract. The key portion starts at about the 3-minute mark:

 

Joecks concludes, “Nevada’s collective bargaining laws already severely limit Jara’s authority. You don’t solve that problem by handing what little control you do have to the teachers union.”

 

 

 

 

 

What is the bottom line when students switch to charter schools?

Recently the morning newspaper reported that the Clark County School District plans to create a job — costing $117,000 — whose purpose will be to slow the number of students bailing out of the district and opting to attend charter schools.

“When a child leaves the school district for a charter school, the state per-pupil funding and some local revenues that would have gone to Clark County departs as well,” the story explains.

Some local revenues, but not all. If the district unloads the entire expense of educating the departing student but retains some of the local revenue, how is that a drain?

Back in December the newspaper reported that the district issued a statement saying 1,400 more students enrolled in a charter school than projected, and this higher-than-expected charter school enrollment would cost the district $9 million in lost revenue.

According to CCSD, the district’s 2016-17 budget had per-pupil expenditures at $8,512, meaning the exit of 1,400 students would reduce spending by $11.9 million. Lose $9 million in revenue but cut spending by $11.9 million, sounds like a savings of $2.9 million.

Spending $117,000 to avoid saving $2.9 million? Where’s the logic in that?

“This is a position that is expected to raise money for the district by bringing children back in. It will pay for itself,” School Board member Carolyn Edwards was quoted as saying. “In essence, it’s not a cut, it’s actually an increase to the budget.”

Besides, what would the job entail? Cajoling? Badgering?

 

It’s a matter of perspective

The graphic in today’s newspaper certainly makes it look like spending on public eduction in Clark County has been rather stagnant over the past five decades.

A chart shows the growth in the Distributive School Account, the amount of states spent per pupil each year. From 1970 to this year, according to the graphic, this has grown from $545 to $5,700, a steep almost 45-degree angle. But when adjusted for inflation on the same chart, the DSA has grown by only 60 percent. The extended line looks rather flat.

The line chart excludes other funding that has been added other the years, dismissing it as, “Other sources of funding outside the DSA have bolstered per-pupil spending, but only for certain students.” This includes Zoom funding for English learners, Victory funding for poorer schools, added special education funds and weighted funding, which is formula to added funding poor performing schools whatever the reason. According to a bar chart, this added nearly double the Clark County school funds.

Despited dismissing this as for “certain students,” money is fungible. If that money had not been added the funding would have come from the DSA. So the total spending is not $5,700 per pupil, but $11,250. Adjusted for inflation, the funding has tripled over nearly 50 years.

Changes the perspective a bit.

There is no chart showing student achievement scores over that half century.

 

 

 

Arbitrator says school district can afford to give administrators a pay raise

When it comes to arbitration of public union and local government collective bargaining contracts, apparently the only thing that really matter is whether the local government’s taxpayers can afford to give a raise in pay — not whether the employees have earned a raise.

On Friday an arbitrator ruled that the Clark County School District must give raises to its unionized school principals and administrators and pay nearly $20 million in retroactive raises, according to the contribution-funded online news site The Nevada Independent. Though the decision came this past week, a search of the morning newspaper found no trace of the news.

According to the arbitrator the school district’s final offer fell $13 million below the union’s demand.Arb

The arbitrator stated:

The District offered no specific evidence indicating that teachers would be laid off if the Association’s final offer was granted, class sizes would be increased, days in the school year would be curtailed, or the District’s ability to educate children within the District would otherwise be adversely impacted.

The evidence did establish that cuts in the District’s budget would have to be made, but there was no compelling evidence indicating the District would be unable to fulfill its primary obligation of providing education to the children residing within the school district if the Association’s Final Offer was granted. In the absence of such evidence, the Arbitrator concludes the District has the financial ability to pay the Association’s requested Final Written Offer without compromising its obligation to provide an education to the children residing within the School District.

All that matters is the ability of the taxpayers to pay and pay without regard to the quality of the education outcome, which has been long established as subpar.

In Nevada, arbitrators are not allowed the split the baby and compromise between the two final offers but must choose one or the other. It seems the unions’ final offers invariable is chosen and the main reason seems to always be that the taxpayers can afford it.

Just how overcrowded are the local schools?

Though the graphic purports to be about 344 schools the numbers add up to 345 schools. Also, the ratios in the size of the school houses is far out of perspective. Additionally, there is an October 2016 report on school capacities available online, but we’ve yet to find an October 2017 report.

Let’s put that in perspective.

A story and graphic in the morning paper dutifully informs readers that 344 Clark County public schools are at or exceed the number of students for which they were designed, and reports that a “majority” the county’s schools exceed capacity. What it doesn’t say is whether that majority is 51 percent or 99 percent. For lack of a number perspective is lost.

Actually, the school district says it has 356 schools, including various specialty schools, so nearly 97 percent of schools are at or exceed capacity. But having too many schools at less than capacity would be a waste of taxpayers’ capital expenditures. So just how bad is the crowding?

According to an October 2016 report, on which the newspaper account is purportedly based, elementary schools are at 127.6 percent of capacity, while middle schools are at only 89.5 percent of capacity and high schools at 109.5 percent. The district has plans to open seven new elementary schools in the coming year and expand a number of existing schools. More are on the drawing board. It is unclear whether portable buildings are considered part of a school’s “program capacity.”

Those two schools that are more than 200 percent capacity are Walter Long Elementary at 216 percent capacity but with 21 portable buildings and Elaine Wynn Elementary at 210 percent but with 20 portables.

You can see the school-by-school ratio of capacity to enrollment on the district’s website.

At one point the newspaper seems to conflate student-teacher ratio to school capacity, but that’s an entirely different topic.

This is a scene grab of the Clark County high school capacity report.

 

 

Where have I read that before?

CCSD repairs needed (CCSD photo)

This past week a Las Vegas newspaper story reported that Clark County school officials says the district needs to spend $6.5 billion to renovate deteriorating school facilities and another $900 million to build new schools.

No surprise. What was surprising was the rather blasé confession that the district has blatantly mismanaged its maintenance responsibilities for years.

District officials explained that they have cut $5 million and 47 positions from the maintenance budget from 2009 to 2012, even though every dollar of deferred maintenance ends up costing $4 in added capital costs for repairs and replacements.

Of course, it took until today’s editorial in the Review-Journal to point out that, during the years the maintenance budget was being cut, the district has increased teacher salaries by $100 million — admittedly some of that foisted on the district by binding arbitration with the unions.

The editorial concludes that the newly Republican-majority Legislature should eliminate binding arbitration and repeal the prevailing wage law, “which would drive down construction costs for every public construction project in the state and make bond dollars go further.”

I do believe the newspaper has been editorially calling for those changes for 25 years. Still waiting for a response from Carson City.