Gibbons proposes sweeping school changes

Back to the wall, Gibbons proposes a union-bashing, anti-teacher program he never advocated in his two legislatures

In the driveway of the governor’s mansion in Carson City, Gov. Jim Gibbons greets visitors.

In the driveway of the governor’s mansion in Carson City, Gov. Jim Gibbons greets visitors.


Gov. Jim Gibbons last week proposed a program to eliminate collective bargaining by local government workers and school district employees, abolish the public’s right to elect the state board of education in favor of a politically appointed board, increase the number of children in classrooms, provide public funding for private school tuition, and make the state school superintendent appointed by and answerable to the governor instead of to the state school board.

Gibbons, who was the target of a federal investigation over his secret earmark for a crony while he was a member of Congress, also called for eliminating “special earmarks” in state government and consolidation of smaller county school districts. Other proposals were described only in vague language—“Streamline school funding and create LOCAL empowerment districts.” (The capitalization was in Gibbons’ original written statement.)

“Unions do NOTHING to help educate our children,” the statement read. “The unnecessary tax money expended for union negotiations and special benefits can be used in classrooms to help our children learn, not pay for union officials or promote costly and often hostile negotiations.”

Gibbons said increasing class sizes alone would slash $127 million a year and abolishing full day kindergarten would save $28 million.

There was no rush in either political party to back Gibbons on the proposal. Education leaders said the proposals need study while legislators questioned the need to study proposals that are not going to pass.

Senate Republican leader William Raggio said, “If the governor’s going to propose those things, then certainly we have an obligation to look at them. Taken one by one, many of them are not realistic.” He said some of them would mean putting people out of work or would cause lawsuits.

Former Democratic governor Robert Miller considers the limited class size reduction that has been accomplished in Nevada to be an important part of the legacy of his 10 years as governor. He said it has never been fully implemented and should be expanded, not eliminated.

“We worked very hard on it for the 10 years I was there to get what I’d hoped was a baseline,” said Miller. “But we’ve really never proceeded from that baseline, and this would be a huge retreat.”

Gibbons wants his program to be adopted by a special session of the Nevada Legislature, an idea that appeared to be a non-starter to legislators in both parties who said that changes of such moment need more attention than a special session can give. In Nevada, the average special session has been 9.9 days long, but since the creation of the Legislative Commission and the Interim Finance Committee—which handle legislative business between regular sessions—they have dropped to 6.4 days. Even that figure is inflated, because it includes two 2003 sessions when the stalemated legislature was technically in session but actually in recess for many days. The only recent lengthy special session was 2004, held for the impeachment and trial of Nevada Controller Kathy Augustine.

Raggio said, “It’s almost impractical to do that. They’re big item issues. They deserve long discussion and consideration.”

If the Gibbons proposals were meant to put Democrats on the defensive, they failed. Democratic leaders felt the proposals are so extreme that they jumped at the chance to rub them in the governor’s face, and they enjoyed watching the discomfort in GOP ranks over such extreme proposals becoming a part of the Republican primary election debate.

Gibbons did not propose these kinds of major policy changes at his two regular legislative sessions, in 2007 and 2009, when the lawmakers could have given substantive scrutiny to them. That failure to act earlier led nearly every player to conclude the governor had raised them now solely to consolidate a small but loyal group of militant conservatives in hope of slipping through the Republican primary with a plurality rather than a majority in September when at least three major GOP candidates will be on the ballot June 8.

Some GOP legislators said they feared that Gibbons’ anti-teacher stances would hurt Republicans even if he failed to win the primary for governor next year. “This is going to arouse union and non-union teachers, and they are not a group that stays home on Election Day,” said one. “Once they’re aroused, they’ll want to stamp this out forever. He’s hurting Sandoval and every Republican on the ticket.” Another Republican legislator compared it to California Proposition 187 in 1994, an anti-immigrant ballot measure notorious in the GOP for inciting Latino voters against Republicans.

Truckee Meadows Community College political scientist Fred Lokken agreed, saying “He has the huge risk of galvanizing opposition because he touched so many hot button issues at once.”

Brian Sandoval, the leading Republican candidate for governor, issued a statement saying, “While I’m an advocate of school choice, expanding empowerment schools and increased parental involvement, I believe it is an extremely bad idea to be laying off hundreds of teachers in a time of record unemployment in Nevada.”

Lokken said the Gibbons proposal is hard to explain as anything but a reelection ploy. He said Gibbons had many opportunities to float these ideas and failed to do so until he was desperate to put together a strategy for the primary election.

“I mean, nothing has changed from his campaign for the governorship and his pending reelection,” he said. “He had the opportunity when he ran to become governor. He had the opportunity for his first legislative agenda … and his second legislature. He’s had all kinds of opportunities in between. So there can be no explanation for this except that it’s campaign motivated.”

Gibbons tried in 2003 to position himself as a schools supporter by proposing a statewide initiative petition that he called “Education First,” requiring the Nevada Legislature to adopt education funding before other spending. The initiative was approved by voters but gained education nothing—the lawmakers simply created a voting sequence in which school funding was adopted first after the normal scrutiny of all budgets took place.

On Tuesday this week, Gibbons began backing away from the program, saying class size reduction will be fully funded, which would reduce the budget benefit that was a principal purpose of the proposals.

Legislators who attended a meeting with Gibbons on the day he released the schools proposals say his demeanor in the closed meeting was at odds with his conduct afterwards in front of reporters. One legislator described him in the meeting as militant while in his public comments he tried to appear conciliatory.

The meeting of the governor and legislators itself became an issue because it had been billed as an occasion for them to work together. When Gibbons’ aides released the proposals to the press during the meeting, the legislators felt blindsided when they left the meeting and were expected to comment cold on the proposals. “Certainly when we walked out of the meeting, you had an opportunity—the press in general had an opportunity to digest it,” said Assembly Democratic leader John Oceguera. “We were seeing it for the first time. … It’s not the way I would have done it.”

Though Gibbons mentioned the proposals in the meeting, the lawmakers had no details, and no idea of the sweep of his plan.

Oceguera said Gibbons began the meeting with a somewhat “threatening” complaint about bill drafting in advance of a special session. “That was the general overall start of the discussion…so when at first you’re being threatened, the rest of the conversation becomes challenging,” he said. Gibbons later publicly threatened to sue the legislature for use of its bill drafting office.