By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
The Clark County School District (CCSD) Trustees were caught completely off guard on Thursday night, by an overwhelming public response to a meeting set to discuss the controversial topic of whether to draft a comprehensive gender diversity policy for the district.
The meeting saw a huge turnout that completely packed the small, 100 seat, board room in the CCSD Ed Greer Building on E. Flamingo. The crowd spilled out of that meeting room into an overflow area in the building. Then it overflowed out to the parking lot of the building. More than 250 people were unable to get into the building at all.
In the end, Trustees were forced to call a recess and hold a closed door session with CCSD attorneys where they were counseled to pull the gender diversity item from the agenda.
According to parent groups, there was no good reason for the Trustees to be surprised by the overwhelming turnout. A previous meeting, held in January on the same subject, took place in a large high school auditorium. In that meeting, the hall was packed with a broad range of attendees wishing to have input.
“Why would they have an entire high school theater completely filled with standing room only, and then think that they could go down to a board room of 100 seats in this meeting?” asked local parent Erika Whitmore who has been closely involved in the gender diversity issue from its beginning.
Whitmore said that she and many other parents had made numerous requests to the trustees for the venue to be changed to a larger space in order to accommodate the crowds. But those requests were denied.
There was disagreement among trustees on this very same issue at the Thursday meeting.
Early on, Trustee Kevin Child made a motion to remove the item from the agenda, in light of the crowd, and instead wait for the State Board of Education to establish a framework on the issue, which is expected to take place in the coming weeks.
But the board rejected Child’s motion with a 4-3 vote. Trustees Chris Garvey, Linda Young and Childs all voted in favor of the motion. The four other trustees opposed it.
During the opening public comment period, concern was voiced about the hundreds of people standing outside who, some felt, were essentially being locked out of the process.
In response to these comments, Garvey asked for a legal opinion on whether the meeting was in compliance with open meeting law. The response from CCSD legal staff at that point was somewhat unclear. The CCSD attorney stated that, for those that were in the building, the meeting was in full compliance. But compliance was less clear in view of those that were unable to gain access to the building.
Intent upon continuing the meeting, however, Trustee Carolyn Edwards dismissed the opinion. “We are live webcasting this meeting and people can get it on their phones,” she said. “There is an ability for them to see it.”
Childs pointed out that he himself had suggested, at the end of the January meeting, that a venue was needed in future meetings ample enough to accommodate a large crowd. But his request had been ignored, he said.
“Democracy is a great thing and it is great that so many people care enough to show up,” Childs said. “But now it seems to be more like a dictatorship. This is about all people and people should have a chance to be heard. This kind of thing is why people get upset and angry and distrustful.”
CCSD Board President Deanna Wright, who was also pushing the meeting forward, refuted this comment. “This is the seventh time that we have heard public comment on this,” Wright said. “It was agendized that we would only hear 30 minutes of comment. Everyone knew this. We have regular business to do, so we are moving forward with that regular business.”
Trustee Chris Garvey expressed her misgivings about moving forward. “I do have concerns about open meeting law and the people outside of the building not being able to hear the conversation,” she said. “I want that on the record. I do not agree with this at all, and I have concerns.”
After that the board continued the meeting for more than an hour, hearing a lengthy item about the CCSD budgeting process. Then, with the gender equity item being next on the agenda, Wright called a recess stating that the board needed to consult briefly with attorneys regarding the open meeting law concern. The board then withdrew for about 15 minutes.
When they returned, Wright announced that the gender diversity item was being pulled from the agenda. Another meeting would be held in a larger venue at a later date, she said.
“I want to give everyone an opportunity, who would like to leave at this time, to go ahead and do so,” she said. “We will not be discussing anything to do with agenda item 4.02 (gender diversity) tonight.”
But more public comment was allowed on the subject later in the meeting. After a brief pause, when most of the members of the public left the room, the meeting proceeded with a few other remaining agenda items. Then the floor was open again for the meeting’s final public comment period.
Usually final comment of an open meeting is restricted to items not on the meeting agenda. But a question was asked whether the gender diversity item could be addressed since it had been pulled from the agenda and technically was no longer an agenda item. The CCSD legal representative said, in light of what had happened that evening, the board should open the floor to any and all comments.
What followed was nearly an hour of public comment, most of which was from a relatively small number of people who had stayed. All of these were in favor of the district establishing a comprehensive new gender diversity policy. No opposing comments were voiced as most of the audience had left with the assurance that the matter would not be discussed again.
This final turn of events was upsetting to Deborah Earl, of the regional parent advocacy group Power2Parent.
“It is just astounding that they would do that!” Earl said. “First of all, they are in complete violation of open meeting laws for the first two hours of the meeting. They carry on discussion on agenda items where a huge number of people simply don’t have access to provide input. Then they allow public comment on this subject to continue after telling everyone to go home! We have already contacted the Attorney General on this matter. We think that he needs to take a look at the way things were handled.”
Interestingly, neither Garvey nor Childs returned to the board room after the recess with attorneys. They were not present for the rest of the meeting.
In a later interview with the PROGRESS, Garvey explained that the concerns about open meeting law violations had escalated as the meeting had progressed.
“Of course, I voiced concerns early on, but it became extremely obvious that there were real problems as we were hearing about the number of people outside, not being allowed into the building,” Garvey said.
During the recess, the CCSD attorney went outside and talked to people waiting there, Garvey said. Many of these people reported that they had been there to speak on other agenda items and were unable to do so.
“Our attorney told us that she couldn’t defend us legally, the way it had been going,” Garvey said. “At that point it was clear that it was a total train wreck.”
Garvey said that she told trustees that the entire meeting might have been in violation of open meeting law and so should be closed and rescheduled for a future date.
“I told them that I just wouldn’t go forward with the meeting,” Garvey said. “I feel that we need to do the process the way it needs to be done and we hadn’t done that. So that is why I stepped away from it.”
Many Moapa Valley parents and education advocates attended the meeting. Most arrived early, knowing that there would be a big crowd, and hoping to secure a seat inside the board room. They expressed concerns about the lottery-style process both to gain access to the board room and to make public comments on the item.
Moapa resident Lisa Wolfley reported that attendees entering the room were divided up into groups of those in favor of, and those opposed to, the gender diversity policy. Each viewpoint was directed to a different side of the room and seats were reportedly being counted to give an equal number, about 50 seats, to each side.
“They clearly wanted to give both sides an equal share of space,” Wolfley said. “But it also kind of set up the wrong impression that there was equal support for each side. The way it was arranged didn’t really represent the number of people that actually showed up. So many people were left outside and uncounted. Who knows where all those people stood? Meanwhile it looks all nice and evenly balanced in the board room.”
Logandale resident Wendy Mulcock said that the level of tension in the building was frightening to her. Worse yet was the process required to sign up to make comments on the item.
“We had to line up according to whether we were for or against the policy,” she said. “So everyone in the crowded room knew where you stood. Then there were people from the other side of the aisle who were standing up taking photos and videos of the people in the opposing line. I don’t know what they were doing with those photos. But I felt completely intimidated.”
Mulcock said that she feared the level of outrage from the crowd which was placed in such close quarters.
“It was not at all an environment conducive to collaboration or understanding,” she said. “Rather it was conducive to aggression and conflict. It felt wrong and nothing about it, or the way that the trustees conducted the meeting, felt right.”
In the final moments of Thursday’s meeting, board members were allowed to make remarks about the proceedings. In her comments, Trustee Wright expressed frustration about the direction the meeting had taken. Then she seemed to blame the chaos of the evening’s proceedings on a specific group that, she felt, had unfairly misrepresented the intentions of the board on the matter.
“I come from a religious group that, in years past, was persecuted for what they wanted to practice,” Wright said. “We fought really hard to make sure that, as a group, we were protected. It brings me great sadness to have people that claim to use their religion to go after other people for their beliefs. I know that, had the pioneers that my heritage comes from; if they had not been brave and fought for what they knew the rights that they had; it could have been a lot different. I just want to say that I am disappointed in those people that use that blanket to cover untruths that they are spreading about what was supposed to be happening here tonight.”
Power2Parent’s Deborah Earl said that she took strong exception to Wright’s comment which seemed to single out, not only members of religious groups, but specifically LDS Church members involved in opposing the CCSD gender equity proposals.
“It really borders on unethical,” Earl said of Wright’s statement. “Singling out a religious group as the problem with how that meeting went, instead of looking at her own inability to follow open meeting law– if there is any blame to be placed, it should be placed squarely on Deanna Wright and Carolyn Edwards. I was so disappointed in their disrespect for the law and for the parents of the CCSD.”
“The unfortunate thing is that their behavior has just deepened the divide between parents and their elected representatives in the district,” Earl added. “We are now divided even further because our elected leaders have failed us.”