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NPRI sues School District, jeopardizing campus maintenance plan

Conservative think tank alleges commission violated open-meeting law

Updated Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 | 7:08 p.m.

Rex Bell Elementary School

Principal Tim Adams of Rex Bell Elementary School checks out a roof leak on school grounds in Las Vegas Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Launch slideshow »

A local libertarian think tank has sued the Clark County School District in what some say is an apparent attempt to derail the district’s ballot initiative to raise taxes for school maintenance.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute filed a complaint with the 8th Judicial District Court on Friday alleging the Clark County Debt Management Commission violated the Nevada Open Meeting Law.

The commission — composed of three Clark County commissioners and representatives from local city governments and the School Board — voted during its June 7 meeting to approve a ballot question that seeks voter approval on a new property tax to fund school construction and rehabilitation projects.

The cash-strapped School District is pursuing a new capital improvement plan to address $5.3 billion in school maintenance needs over the next decade. The School Board — supported by four former first ladies of Nevada — are pushing for a six-year capital levy that is expected to raise property taxes as much as $74 a year on a home with an assessed valuation of $100,000.

NPRI’s lawsuit alleges the debt management commission failed to take public comment prior to approving the ballot measure, thereby violating the open-meeting law and invalidating any action taken during the meeting.

The lawsuit — filed by NPRI and one of its researchers Karen Gray, who attended the June 7 meeting — claims the violation voids the commission’s decision to place the tax hike proposal on the November ballot.

“This action should be declared void by this Court and enjoined from placement on the November 2012 ballot … and/or nullify any elective vote taken,” the lawsuit reads.

If the Attorney General’s Office finds a violation of the open-meeting law, the item may come back for a re-vote, said Barry Smith, president of the Nevada Press Association, who has worked in-depth on open-meeting law issues.

“Often the remedy for an open-meeting law violation is a do-over of the meeting,” Smith said. “You have to follow the rules and the rules say you need to have public comment.”

However, because the deadline to submit and approve ballot initiatives in the November general election has passed, it is unknown whether the lawsuit now jeopardizes the School District’s ballot measure.

Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax said the matter will have to be resolved in the courts soon, as the election department is preparing to start printing upwards of 750,000 sample ballots next week to be sent out to voters this fall. Ballots are being prepared this far in advance, because overseas ballots much be sent out before Sept. 21, Lomax said.

The open-meeting law was revised in 2011 to require that public comment be taken before any action. Previously, some boards and commissions took public comments after a decision had been made.

The minutes of the June 7 meeting of the debt management commission were not immediately available online to determine if and when an opportunity for public comment was made available to constituents.

Click to enlarge photo

Clark County commissioner, Susan Brager.

However, Clark County Commissioner Susan Brager — who has chaired the debt management commission for at least four years — said she remembers “so emphatically” that she turned to look at Gray during the June 7 meeting and asked her if she had any public comments.

“I’m very religious about doing it,” Brager said, adamant about making it a habit of asking for public comment during her meetings. “I think it’s very important the public should have a voice.”

Gray declined to comment on Tuesday.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak — who is vice chairman of the debt management commission — also said he remembers Brager asking for public comment during the meeting. The commission usually takes public comments at the beginning and at the end of meetings, Sisolak said.

“My recollection of the meeting is that public comment was called for and there was none so we moved on,” Sisolak said, adding it is rare for members of the public to comment during commission meetings.

Regardless of whether there was a violation of the open-meeting law, some School District officials saw NPRI’s lawsuit as a politically motivated attack on the district’s major initiative to address some of its aging school buildings.

Since the recession, key repairs and renovations have been put off, raising concerns by School Board members about the safety of children in classrooms. At some of the district’s oldest schools, roofs leak, floors flood and air conditioning units regularly break down, officials said.

Joyce Haldeman, the School District’s associate superintendent of community and government relations, had worked on the district’s 1998 bond initiative that built more than 100 schools over the past decade. Haldeman, who is now overseeing the district’s proposed capital improvement plan, questioned NPRI’s motive in filing the lawsuit.

Suspect is the timing of NPRI’s lawsuit, which came just five days shy of the 60-day deadline to file a complaint on open-meeting law violations, Haldeman said. The deadline for filing questions to be placed on the November ballot was July 16, Lomax said.

“If (NPRI) were really interested in the open-meeting law, why would they wait until now to file this lawsuit?” Haldeman said. “It sounds to me like a political maneuver.”

Although NPRI spokesman Victor Joecks has publicly questioned the ballot measure in the past, NPRI attorney Joseph Becker maintained the lawsuit was not a political move to erase the tax initiative from the ballot.

"This is about the open meeting law and government transparency," Becker said on Wednesday. "It has nothing to do with the ballot question."

Becker declined to comment on the timing of NPRI's lawsuit, however.

"I'm not going to talk about that," he said. "The statute gives us 60 days to file and we met that deadline."

Brager — who was a School Board member for 12 years — said the commission will hear the ballot initiative again in August to conduct a re-vote “in an abundance of caution.” Both Brager and Haldeman said they were confident the lawsuit would not impact the ballot measure in November.

Lomax was not so sure. The local registrar of voters said it's common for the election department to be hindered by political battles — sometimes over legal technicalities — on ballot questions.

"It's business as usual," Lomax said. "These kinds of things seem to happen every election and we're always trying to scramble at the end (to print ballots)."

School Board President Linda Young, who sits on the debt management commission, said Tuesday that she respects NPRI and its right to challenge the School District on issues of government transparency. (She too said that Brager has been "conscientious" about asking for public comment during commission meetings.)

However — although she wouldn't speculate on NPRI's motive — Young said she was concerned about taxpayer dollars being diverted from the classroom to fight NPRI's lawsuit.

"We don't have those funds for extraneous things that don't benefit students," Young said. "Anything that takes away from education of students is concerning."

Furthermore, Young said the intent of the School District’s ballot initiative is to allow voters to decide whether or not they support a tax increase to fund school upkeep. Although she understands the tough economic times, Young said the capital improvement plan was a worthwhile investment.

"It's absolutely critical," Young said. "We have so many needs. Some of our schools are literally falling apart.

"This isn't whistling in the wind, let's go get some money from people," she continued. "It's a dire emergency. We have to do something or we're going to have to shut down some schools. Let’s present this issue to the public and let the voters decide."

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  1. So in a recession, really a depression here, do we want to increase our taxes to pay for "anchor babies" and the like?

    They will mostly dropout and handout fliers on the Strip. CC schools are a joke, unless you go to Henderson schools. Sad, but true...

  2. 'doogie'...

    Seriously?
    That's just...so typical of the backwards 'thinking' that is endemic to a large percentage of the local populous, which by extension perpetuates the ongoing lack of support for education in these here parts.
    How's Vinnie?

    NPRI...
    Nuttin' but a front for anti-tax propaganda,
    with a 'special' focus on public education.
    The Sheldon Adelson-backed front group has NO SCRUPLES, and even less brain-power.
    'Think Tank', indeed.

  3. NPRI, as usual, is not above lying, cheating and bullying to benefit their ultra wealthy donors. NPRI is NOT a think tank. They are pure 100% propaganda and rhetoric.

  4. does filing suit in a case like this jeopardize npri's tax exempt status???
    i can't image the statute that created these organizations had increased litigation as a positive policy consideration...
    the time to squash npri...
    is right frickin now!!!

  5. I love NPRI. Somebody has to stand up to the political bullies.

  6. Let's review. NPRI has worked this summer encouraging teachers to leave CCEA. Anti-union, anti-education.

    Filing suit to prevent a bond issue to repair aging schools. Anti-education.

    Wants to get rid of "old, bad" teachers and replace them with younger teachers. Have never defined "bad teacher". I'm thinking more expensive is bad. Anti education again.

    Do we see a pattern here?

  7. NPRI, I raise the question, who supports you all? Show your true colors.

  8. According to this article: "The lawsuit -- filed by NPRI and one of its researchers Karen Gray, who attended the June 7 meeting -- claims the violation voids the commission's decision to place the tax hike proposal on the November ballot."

    IF she was at the meeting, why for Heaven's sake did she not raise a concern at the time? She did not know then? If she didn't, she has no business holding that position. It appears that NPRI is simply waiting for an opening to pounce. I suggest Ms. Gray and Mr. Joecks find another cause with which to spend their time because apparently they have too much of it. I certainly did not appreciate receiving an unsolicited email. It was an abuse of internet privileges much like those spam artists.

    NPRI's mission is supposedly to 'solve' problems in society's and governmental structures and processes.

    NPRI, with its wealthy donors, can certainly help education by becoming a partner of the school district in designing solutions for its myriad challenges.

    Is filing a suit a solution? If you cannot offer solutions, then you are part of THE problem.

  9. CCSD has no cash problems. We do have a problem with EXCESSIVE EXPENDITURES for compensation.

  10. Who can ignore their history of planting relentless trolls on this forum? Obviously NPRI is more than a mere local think-tank. Along with their like-minded compatriots at the chamber of commerce, they function as a lobbying group and political action committee intent on starving public education until it is too weak to fend off privatization.

    If NPRI and the chamber are free-market fanatics, they are surely inconsistent in their embrace of free-market philosophies. While they seek to damage education and eliminate collective bargaining, they do nothing about businesses' growing reliance on public subsidies, other than spout the predictable mumbo-jumbo about government picking winners and losers. Did anyone at NPRI happen to notice the State of Nevada's deal with Apple? It doesn't appear so. They're too busy trying to get their hands on education dollars.

    This lawsuit by NPRI is reprehensible, and it is a problem for more than the schoolchildren of Clark County. NPRI has recently announced its expansion into Reno, where it will be just as hostile to Washoe County's public institutions.

  11. Why is NPRI only anti teacher's union. They were silent on the Firefighter's overtime issues. They have been silent on the issues with unions and budgets in North Las Vegas.

  12. 1. Roslenda: Bond money for capital improvements is separate from general operating funds used to pay school district employees' salaries, though I suppose it's possible that some bond money is allocated to pay the salaries of those individuals whose jobs are directly related to capital improvement projects. This would certainly be prudent and reasonable.

    2. CCSD Trustees: There are sometimes consequences for turning a blind eye when your union-busting, top man has been hopping into bed with the enemy.

    3. NPRI: Dumb move! I should think you'd want those old buildings repaired, even at taxpayer expense, before embarking on your plan to have facilities turned over to your private sector buddies. Once again, your "think tank" logic defies logic.

  13. No real need to "derail" any proposed property tax increase since that has less than ZERO chance of passing anyway.

    Clark county has a lot of work to do gutting the fat and inefficiency from ALL government offices, and trimming the outlandish compensation of the CCFD before even THINKING of robbing more from tax payers.

    Better get to work on that now pols...the longer you wait the harder it will be.

    NO NEW TAXES

  14. @stopthebs. Only problem is that you are confusing two different governments. CCFD is part of Clark County and is controlled by the County Commissioners.

    CCSD is controlled by the Trustees and has a completely different budget. Funds from CCSD can NOT be used by Clark County and funds from Clark County can NOT be used by CCSD.

  15. To Thomas Delahunty: Why do you need someone to stand up against the "political bullies" FOR you? Too busy, perhaps? Just wondering.

  16. $6.17/month for a tax increase on a $100,000 house to pay for school maintenance? Man O'Live.

  17. All meeting have minutes taken. It should be very easy to document whether there was a call for public comment or not. If there was a public comment call, that should just about put this issue to bed.

  18. Can we get NPRI to file suit against CCSD and WCSD for using taxpayer funding to LOBBY THE LEGISLATURE. Certainly a violation for the federal grant money they receive as the OMBC's that contain the cost principles REQUIRED for grant recipients, you CANNOT lobby anyone.

  19. @noindex. If this bond issue is approved, the money CAN NOT be used for operating budget, but must be used for capital projects. Since the trustees control that budget and none of the the funds can be used to pay salaries, please explain to me how it is a "union slush fund."

    @Roslenda. Then you will also have to file suit against any county, city, and school district that sent representatives to talk to the legislature. I believe that the only requirement with federal grant money is that money may not be used for lobbying. You didn't answer my question about which high expenses you were against.

  20. 1. There is probably a set of Minutes for this meeting. What do they say as to public comments being asked for?

    2. The meeting proceedings were probably recorded and/or transcribed.

    3. If the Commission Chair had the habit of always asking for public comment -- and the claim of this habit is not contradicted by a recording or transcript -- this becomes a matter of invited (or induced) error, which precludes NPRI from taking advantage of its own failure to make comments when comments were requested. It is a long established principle that one may not benefit from one's own wrong. One cannot stay silent when given the opportunity to comment -- and then turn around and complain that one has been prejudiced because one stayed silent.

    One side or the other has a problem in this case.