Gibbons proposes sweeping school changes

Photo By DENNIS MYERS In the driveway of the governor’s mansion in Carson City, Gov. Jim Gibbons greets visitors.

Gov. Jim Gibbons last week proposed a program to eliminate
collective bargaining by local government workers and school district
employees, abolish the public’s right to elect the state board of
education in favor of a politically appointed board, increase the
number of children in classrooms, provide public funding for private
school tuition, and make the state school superintendent appointed by
and answerable to the governor instead of to the state school
board.

Gibbons, who was the target of a federal investigation over his
secret earmark for a crony while he was a member of Congress, also
called for eliminating “special earmarks” in state
government and consolidation of smaller county school districts. Other
proposals were described only in vague language—“Streamline
school funding and create LOCAL empowerment districts.” (The
capitalization was in Gibbons’ original written statement.)

“Unions do NOTHING to help educate our children,” the
statement read. “The unnecessary tax money expended for union
negotiations and special benefits can be used in classrooms to help our
children learn, not pay for union officials or promote costly and often
hostile negotiations.”

Gibbons said increasing class sizes alone would slash $127 million a
year and abolishing full day kindergarten would save $28 million.

There was no rush in either political party to back Gibbons on the
proposal. Education leaders said the proposals need study while
legislators questioned the need to study proposals that are not going
to pass.

Senate Republican leader William Raggio said, “If the
governor’s going to propose those things, then certainly we have
an obligation to look at them. Taken one by one, many of them are not
realistic.” He said some of them would mean putting people out of
work or would cause lawsuits.

Former Democratic governor Robert Miller considers the limited class
size reduction that has been accomplished in Nevada to be an important
part of the legacy of his 10 years as governor. He said it has never
been fully implemented and should be expanded, not eliminated.

“We worked very hard on it for the 10 years I was there to get
what I’d hoped was a baseline,” said Miller. “But
we’ve really never proceeded from that baseline, and this would
be a huge retreat.”

Gibbons wants his program to be adopted by a special session of the
Nevada Legislature, an idea that appeared to be a non-starter to
legislators in both parties who said that changes of such moment need
more attention than a special session can give. In Nevada, the average
special session has been 9.9 days long, but since the creation of the
Legislative Commission and the Interim Finance Committee—which
handle legislative business between regular sessions—they have
dropped to 6.4 days. Even that figure is inflated, because it includes
two 2003 sessions when the stalemated legislature was technically in
session but actually in recess for many days. The only recent lengthy
special session was 2004, held for the impeachment and trial of Nevada
Controller Kathy Augustine.

Raggio said, “It’s almost impractical to do that.
They’re big item issues. They deserve long discussion and
consideration.”

If the Gibbons proposals were meant to put Democrats on the
defensive, they failed. Democratic leaders felt the proposals are so
extreme that they jumped at the chance to rub them in the
governor’s face, and they enjoyed watching the discomfort in GOP
ranks over such extreme proposals becoming a part of the Republican
primary election debate.

Gibbons did not propose these kinds of major policy changes at his
two regular legislative sessions, in 2007 and 2009, when the lawmakers
could have given substantive scrutiny to them. That failure to act
earlier led nearly every player to conclude the governor had raised
them now solely to consolidate a small but loyal group of militant
conservatives in hope of slipping through the Republican primary with a
plurality rather than a majority in September when at least three major
GOP candidates will be on the ballot June 8.

Some GOP legislators said they feared that Gibbons’
anti-teacher stances would hurt Republicans even if he failed to win
the primary for governor next year. “This is going to arouse
union and non-union teachers, and they are not a group that stays home
on Election Day,” said one. “Once they’re aroused,
they’ll want to stamp this out forever. He’s hurting
Sandoval and every Republican on the ticket.” Another Republican
legislator compared it to California Proposition 187 in 1994, an
anti-immigrant ballot measure notorious in the GOP for inciting Latino
voters against Republicans.

Truckee Meadows Community College political scientist Fred Lokken
agreed, saying “He has the huge risk of galvanizing opposition
because he touched so many hot button issues at once.”

Brian Sandoval, the leading Republican candidate for governor,
issued a statement saying, “While I’m an advocate of school
choice, expanding empowerment schools and increased parental
involvement, I believe it is an extremely bad idea to be laying off
hundreds of teachers in a time of record unemployment in
Nevada.”

Lokken said the Gibbons proposal is hard to explain as anything but
a reelection ploy. He said Gibbons had many opportunities to float
these ideas and failed to do so until he was desperate to put together
a strategy for the primary election.

“I mean, nothing has changed from his campaign for the
governorship and his pending reelection,” he said. “He had
the opportunity when he ran to become governor. He had the opportunity
for his first legislative agenda … and his second legislature.
He’s had all kinds of opportunities in between. So there can be
no explanation for this except that it’s campaign
motivated.”

Gibbons tried in 2003 to position himself as a schools supporter by
proposing a statewide initiative petition that he called
“Education First,” requiring the Nevada Legislature to
adopt education funding before other spending. The initiative was
approved by voters but gained education nothing—the lawmakers
simply created a voting sequence in which school funding was adopted
first after the normal scrutiny of all budgets took place.

On Tuesday this week, Gibbons began backing away from the program,
saying class size reduction will be fully funded, which would reduce
the budget benefit that was a principal purpose of the proposals.

Legislators who attended a meeting with Gibbons on the day he
released the schools proposals say his demeanor in the closed meeting
was at odds with his conduct afterwards in front of reporters. One
legislator described him in the meeting as militant while in his public
comments he tried to appear conciliatory.

The meeting of the governor and legislators itself became an issue
because it had been billed as an occasion for them to work together.
When Gibbons’ aides released the proposals to the press during
the meeting, the legislators felt blindsided when they left the meeting
and were expected to comment cold on the proposals. “Certainly
when we walked out of the meeting, you had an opportunity—the
press in general had an opportunity to digest it,” said Assembly
Democratic leader John Oceguera. “We were seeing it for the first
time. … It’s not the way I would have done it.”

Though Gibbons mentioned the proposals in the meeting, the lawmakers
had no details, and no idea of the sweep of his plan.

Oceguera said Gibbons began the meeting with a somewhat
“threatening” complaint about bill drafting in advance of a
special session. “That was the general overall start of the
discussion…so when at first you’re being threatened, the
rest of the conversation becomes challenging,” he said. Gibbons
later publicly threatened to sue the legislature for use of its bill
drafting office.

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Dennis Myers
About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.