Those with power always want more
“I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members.”
That’s Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, referencing the calculated strategy of electing ultra-conservative Christians to local school boards where they could directly influence everything from textbooks to sex education.
Some social conservative school board members were elected in Nevada at the height of the Christian Coalition’s power in the early ’90s, including Lezlie Porter in Washoe County and Sharron Angle in Nye County. But the “stealth campaigns” to take over school boards were not as successful in Nevada as they were elsewhere. Voters quickly caught on to the Christian Coalition’s strategy, grilling school board candidates during voter forums to determine their positions on vouchers, sex education, and other conservative touchstones before going to the polls.
I remembered Reed’s words as Gov. Sandoval signaled his intent during the recent State of the State address to submit a bill to make all school board members in Nevada appointed. The governor offered little explanation for his views, other than stating school boards in Nevada have become “disconnected from their communities.”
Sandoval’s school board angst may be related to last July’s debacle when the Washoe County School Board contemptuously and imperially fired its superintendent. Several of the board members involved in the incident have already been replaced, one by a voluntary retirement due to illness and another, the chair of the school board, by defeat at the polls.
Nevertheless, Sandoval wants to take away the voters’ power to choose school board members, although it’s unclear as yet how or by whom future members would be appointed.
During the past few months Washoe County voters have witnessed appointment processes that attracted far more candidates than any election but favored those who were already politically well connected.
When then-Councilwoman Hillary Schieve moved up to Reno mayor, 74 people applied to fill the remainder of her council term. Many of the candidates were of high caliber, but it was a given from the start that the most connected candidate, then-Assemblyman David Bobzien would get the nod. He did.
When the County Commission met to appoint a Democratic replacement for Bobzien in the State Assembly, they had 12 highly-qualified candidates to choose from. Republican commissioners were impressed by candidates they described as “top notch” and “rock stars.” But the plum appointment to the super-safe Assembly seat went to Amber Joiner, a former Legislative Counsel Bureau employee, lobbyist, and high-level staffer in the Sandoval administration.
Bobzien and Joiner are well-qualified to be sure, but so were many of the other applicants. Perhaps the only surprise during the appointment process was the sheer number of excellent candidates who were willing to come forward for an appointment rather than embark on a messy campaign and submit to the ritual of begging for financing from wealthy business interests.
The school board is arguably the elected body that needs to stay closest to its community—on that point Gov. Sandoval and I agree. But that’s more likely to happen if it’s the voters choosing its members.
Imagine for a moment the potential mischief of someone like Ralph Reed tasked with making school board appointments. He might then accomplish what he couldn’t through the ballot box, a school board composed of right-wing zealots intent on forcing one religious viewpoint on public school children.
For those who scoff at the likelihood of someone having that much power to shape a board by appointments, recall the not-so-distant Wildlife Commission appointments made by former Gov. Jim Gibbons.
Democracy is not something that should be outsourced to a political appointment process. Let’s keep our right to vote.