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December 22, 2014

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Barber fights to keep School Board seat

Since she first joined the Clark County School Board in 1997, Shirley Barber has felt like an outsider, her concerns largely ignored by fellow board members.

Her opponent for the District C seat, attorney Richard Segerblom, doubts he would be any more popular were he to defeat Barber in the November election.

Barber, 69, is a retired principal with more than 30 years' experience in Clark County schools. In her first two terms Barber repeatedly broke ranks with the other six School Board members over how much authority to allot the superintendent, serving as the lone "no" vote in what would otherwise be unanimous decisions.

She has also been critical of the district's fiscal policies, including the decision this summer to purchase a new sport-utility vehicle for Superintendent Carlos Garcia, as allowed under his contract.

"We shouldn't be finding out about these things after the fact," Barber said. "There should be School Board approval required for major purchases that aren't directly related to student achievement."

In January 2003, after she was passed over by her colleagues for the position of School Board president, Barber leveled charges of racism. Barber would have been the first black member to hold the post.

At the time, other School Board members refuted her charges, arguing that they didn't want to break in a new president right before a new legislative session and that it made sense for Sheila Moulton to serve as president for a second term.

But the rejection stung, Barber says.

So why put herself through another election in a year when her personal life has provided enough challenges, including seeing her daughter through serious back surgery and rehabilitation?

"I guess I'm a fighter," Barber said with a laugh. "I'm not done until I say I'm done."

Barber wants to see a comprehensive high school in West Las Vegas, which she says would help reduce the dropout rate by giving students in that community a school of their own. She also supports mandatory school uniforms as long as parents are properly surveyed and a majority show support.

Hannah Brown, president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce, said she respects Barber's tenacity in the face of so much opposition.

"It takes a lot of courage to go back again and again when you're fighting an uphill battle," Brown said. "Shirley has done the best she could with the little support she's had. It's a shame people want to work against her instead of with her."

Segerblom, 56, an attorney, has represented dozens of disgruntled school employees in lawsuits against the district. He has promised to eliminate that element of his law practice if elected. But he also knows his reputation as a vocal critic of the district's management would follow him into office. Segerblom sees that as positive factor rather than a stumbling block.

"I've tried to bring about change working from the outside in," said Segerblom, whose daughter and son graduated from Clark High School in 1998 and 2001, respectively. "Now I'm taking a different tack."

School Board members are paid $80 per meeting, with the clerk and president receiving $85.

Leading up to the primaries Segerblom had spent close to $24,000 -- the most of any School Board candidate in the four races. By comparison Barber had shelled out just $1,486. She finished first in the primary with 41 percent of the vote to Segerblom's 22 percent.

A 1966 graduate of Boulder City High School -- where his mother was a longtime teacher -- Segerblom said he's frustrated by what he sees as an ineffective School Board that spends too much time bickering over small matters.

As an example, Segerblom points to the ongoing battle over student dress codes and whether principals should be allowed to mandate that students wear certain styles and colors of clothing.

"On principle I'm opposed to uniforms at public schools although I'm hearing from some schools that it does make a difference," Segerblom said. "However, the School Board is spending way too much time on this issue and letting other matters slide."

One way of improving the School Board's efficiency would be to increase public scrutiny by televising the meetings, Segerblom said. He also called for the superintendent's evaluation to be held in a public setting rather than behind closed doors, as it is currently done.

This summer Segerblom filed a complaint with Attorney General Brian Sandoval, claiming the School Board had violated the state's open meeting law, allegedly giving Garcia instructions during a closed session evaluation.

District C, which includes West Las Vegas, has some of the district's oldest and neediest schools, Segerblom said. It's important those campuses have the same technological upgrades and opportunities afforded to students at newer campuses in wealthier parts of Clark County, Segerblom said.

University Regent Steve Sisolak, who has known Segerblom for 30 years and is supporting his campaign, said education "is a passion" for his longtime friend. Segerblom's "outsider" status might mean a steeper learning curve but would benefit the School Board in the long run, Sisolak said.

"Sometimes there needs to be new blood -- it gives a little shock to the system," Sisolak said.

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