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December 20, 2014

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Nevada’s Hispanics work to boost representation on education boards

At a time when policymakers are increasingly focused on better educating Nevada’s growing Hispanic population, several state and local education boards are virtually without representation from the Hispanic community.

Hispanics students represent nearly half of all Clark County public schoolchildren and nearly a quarter of all students in Southern Nevada colleges and universities. Yet, Hispanic membership on Nevada’s K-12 and higher education boards historically has been lacking.

“As a board we do not reflect the diversity of our district,” School Board President Carolyn Edwards said last week. “Improving that ratio on this board is important.”

In an effort to better represent its diverse student body, the Clark County School Board — which comprised six white women and one black woman — appointed Stavan Corbett, a longtime Hispanic leader in education. Hispanic community leaders lobbied heavily for Corbett, who is the third Hispanic appointed to the School Board since the early 1990s.

That lobbying effort is part of a broader push among Hispanic community leaders to recruit and run Hispanic candidates for political office, particularly those overseeing issues important to Hispanics, such as education.

“It wasn’t something that just happened overnight,” said Leo Murrieta of the Latino Leadership Council and Mi Familia Vota, about Corbett’s appointment Thursday night. “These are conversations that a lot of leaders have been having with each other to figure out how do we increase our influence and how do we gain representation?”

• • •

Historically, Nevada’s Hispanic leaders have had mixed results running for political office, despite Hispanic votes becoming highly coveted in recent elections.

In statewide executive and legislative offices, Hispanics have begun establishing a track record of success. Nevada currently has a Hispanic governor and attorney general. There is a growing number of Hispanic lawmakers whose newfound political influence swayed the Nevada Legislature to fund a historic, $50 million appropriation to help English-language learner students — predominantly Hispanic students.

“Historically, folks of color have not been represented or have participated at a large scale in Nevada politics,” said Jose Melendrez, assistant vice president of diversity initiatives at UNLV. “Those days are hopefully behind us. As you start to see the Latino community grow, you’re going to see them get engaged in the political process.”

However, Hispanics have not been as successful in winning local and statewide education board positions. The Nevada Board of Regents has never had an elected Hispanic member. The Clark County School Board and the Nevada Board of Education have each had only one elected Hispanic member.

The lack of representation on education boards has become a growing concern for Hispanic community leaders as Hispanics have become the largest student group in Nevada. These leaders say these education boards lack a diversity of perspective that are vital to setting policies that affect Hispanic students.

When Jose Solorio became the first Hispanic appointed to the School Board, members were debating a new school funding initiative that eventually became the 1998 bond, which led to the construction of more than 100 new schools to address Las Vegas’ exploding student population.

At the time, School Board members were discussing a 90-10 split: 90 percent of the bond money would go toward building new schools and 10 percent to modernize older schools. Solorio persuaded the School Board to adopt a more equitable 60-40 split to help Hispanic students, the majority of whom attend older schools in the urban Las Vegas core.

“It wasn’t the right thing to do to ignore the existing schools,” Solorio said. “That’s where the majority of Latinos and African-Americans live.”

As more Hispanic students enter the School District and higher education, having a Hispanic school board member and regent becomes paramount, Hispanic community leaders say. Having a Hispanic education representative who has experience as an English-language learner can inform and provide a unique perspective for setting education policy.

However, having a school board member or regent with a Hispanic last name or face isn’t enough, Hispanic leaders say. They must be the best-qualified candidate with the interests of all students in mind.

“You need diversity on the board, but you cannot legislate or superimpose it,” said Rene Cantu, the executive director of the Latin Chamber of Commerce Foundation who was appointed last year to the Clark County School Board. “It has to come through a natural process of community empowerment and voting, not through social engineering.”

• • •

To increase their chances of winning elections, Hispanic community leaders have learned to become more politically savvy.

The local Hispanic community has organized into several political groups, training its members to become active voters, canvassers and fundraisers. Several groups have developed lists of qualified potential candidates to run for office, and they’re making a concerted push to encourage more Hispanics to seek political offices.

“Those conversations have began more in earnest as opposed to before; it was, ‘Hey, does anyone want to run?’” said Andres Ramirez, president of the Ramirez Group, a consulting firm.

Hispanic candidates for political and education positions are internally vetted and fielded for particular positions to avoid split votes.

In 2009, two Hispanic candidates with education backgrounds vied for a vacancy on the Clark County School Board — neither was chosen in favor of a white man who brought a business and finance background to the board.

“At that time, unfortunately, more than one Latino candidate was put forward,” said Vicenta Montoya, the director of Latino outreach for The Education Initiative, the union-backed margins tax proposal being put to voters in 2014. “Both individuals were highly qualified. I think the school board in that particular time chose to take a neutral stance. That had much to do with diminishing the opportunity.”

Learning from that experience, Hispanics have fielded just one candidate to fill vacancies since and lobbied heavily on their candidates’ behalf. In 2012, the School Board unanimously chose Rene Cantu to fill a vacancy, and this year, Stavan Corbett was appointed.

Realizing that winning appointments isn’t enough — that winning actual elections matter more — the Hispanic community has begun training its most qualified leaders to become effective politicians.

One group, Hispanics in Politics, is reopening the Hispanic Political Academy, a two-day seminar to train aspiring politicians on how to raise campaign funds, how to rally support and earn people’s votes. After all, knocking on neighbor’s doors and soliciting donations is the only way to win school board and regents elections.

“We need to train people who roll up their sleeves and be true volunteers and support candidates,” said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics. “Somebody may say, ‘I want to run,’ but what kind of army does that person have behind them? It’s something we need to work on.”

Hispanics face an uphill battle when it comes to running for political office — especially those on education boards, Hispanic leaders say:

• The Hispanic political community is still relatively new and is starting to develop the infrastructure to consistently win elections.

• Hispanic immigrants, who may have been politically engaged in their home countries, must learn to navigate and participate in the American political system.

• Finally, Hispanics must be encouraged to run for local education boards, which, although not as prominent as statewide positions, set the policies that affect many Hispanic students.

“Looking 20 years back, Latinos have made tremendous strides in the amount of political power that has been developed,” Montoya said. “In a relatively short period of time, you’re going to see a California-type effect where you’re going to see Latinos everywhere, in every single political position available. Regents, judges, legislators, school boards, everywhere. It’s going to be something that’s going to happen.”

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