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October 26, 2014

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Gibbons’ education task force to meet behind closed doors

Panel will form state’s new education policy

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Chancellor Dan Klaich

Chancellor Dan Klaich

Elaine Wynn

Elaine Wynn

Gov. Jim Gibbons declared this week that Nevada’s future education policy will emerge from a blue ribbon task force he created by executive order.

Despite its potential bearing on key public policy, that task force’s first meeting, scheduled for today, and possibly its future meetings, will be held behind closed doors.

Gibbons’ staff said because the 29-member panel was formed by the governor, it is not subject to the open meeting law.

Task force leaders, university system Chancellor Dan Klaich and casino executive Elaine Wynn, said Thursday that the first meeting will be closed. They have not determined how the public would participate in shaping education policy.

“We’re trying to figure out how to do this, what to do, how to organize it,” Klaich said. “We have got to have public input. But we also have two months to finish this.”

Gibbons’ Deputy Chief of Staff Stacy Woodbury said the decision about whether the meetings would be open was left to the committee leaders. But, she said, “people sometimes feel more free to express their opinions in private meetings. I expect there will be a combination of public and private meetings.”

None of the participants would disclose where or when the task force would meet today, but one source said the meeting is planned for 10 a.m. in a ballroom at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Closing the meetings leaves the board open to charges of secrecy.

“Sometimes they need to speak frankly in public,” said Barry Smith, president of the Nevada Press Association. “The issue is trust. Think of the impression you create when you say, ‘We can say what’s really on our minds in secret. What we say in public is only a facade.’ That’s what absolutely undermines people’s trust in government.”

According to George Taylor, a senior deputy attorney general, if the parent body that creates the board or subcommittee is not subject to the open meeting law, then the committee or subcommittee it creates is not, either. The governor is not subject to the law.

According to the governor’s staff, no public money will be used for the task force.

Gibbons was at a Carson City elementary school Monday to sign the executive order creating the Blue Ribbon Education Reform Task Force.

Its first objective is to help guide the state’s application for federal Race to the Top grant money. The application is due June 1, and Nevada could get as much as $175 million. Gibbons ordered the task force to complete the application by May 21. After that, Gibbons said the task force is expected to reach a consensus on education reforms that Gibbons will propose prior to the 2011 Legislature.

After he signed the executive order creating the task force, he handed the pen to the school’s principal. “With this pen, you’ll know that at your school the future of education in Nevada was begun,” Gibbons said.

Consensus could be difficult with such a large group representing various political viewpoints. The task force includes conservatives such as Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, and Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association, as well as members of the education establishment, including teachers union President Lynn Warne. Large businesses, gaming and classroom teachers are also represented.

But Klaich and Wynn’s involvement is most striking. Both bring a heft and credibility to the task force. The governor is not the most popular figure in education circles, despite declaring four years ago that he wanted to be the “education governor.” Gibbons has proposed deep cuts in K-12 and higher education, and used his recent State of the State address to attack the teachers union and tell critics to “stop whining” about Nevada’s low per-pupil education funding.

Gibbons has also promised that his administration would be open and transparent, something that having the education task force meeting behind closed doors would seem to counter.

“We definitely have to have the discussion about how to include the public,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, a member of the task force. “There’s the law, and then there’s also what makes sense to be productive.”

Smith said he was “confounded” that the first meeting would be in secret.

“It’s a task force whose purpose is to encourage public and private involvement in changing the education infrastructure,” he said. “Why would you start by saying, ‘Well, we have things to talk about, but we don’t want the public to hear.’ It creates a mistrust among the public.”

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