Photo/Dennis Myers When the Washoe School Board faced off against the superintendent it had appointed—Pedro Martinez, second from right—some locals wanted to overturn an elected board.

Republicans in November won both houses of the Nevada Legislature and every state government office elected statewide.

The last time this happened was in 1890. In looking up that information, we found something else interesting. In 1890, Nevadans elected a dozen statewide offices, some of which the Nevada Constitution did not require be elected. Today, however, the state’s voters elect only half that number—only the six offices the state constitution requires be elective.

It’s easy to understand why Nevadans stopped electing the state printer in 1970. (The job was originally made elective in the 19th century when printing was one of state government’s principal expenses.)

But why would the Legislature take away the voters’ ability to elect the state school superintendent? And why would Nevada voters have approved the change, as they did in 1956? If there’s something the public can be considered informed on, it’s schools. Few households are not touched by education in some form.

It’s easy to understand why the state mines inspector is no longer elected, though there was good reason for it when mining was the state’s principal industry. But state surveyor general was removed from the list of elective positions in 1954 even though the state continues to be dominated by land issues involving federally managed lands. The surveyor general’s office became involved in questionable land deals because the legislature had never provided oversight for that office, as it had for controller and treasurer. Instead of simply remedying that flaw, it made the office appointive.

There are, in fact, plenty of bits of evidence that the public’s vote does not command the respect it once did. On Sept. 25, for instance, the Reno Gazette-Journal called for all but one member of the Washoe County School Board to resign, which would have voided the voters’ choices because of a single decision by the board—a move also supported by community figures like developer Perry Di Loreto.

At the same time, Assembly Republican leader Pat Hickey ordered up a bill draft from the Legislative Counsel Bureau to change the board membership to a mix of appointive and elective members.

Something similar had been tried when decisions by the Nevada Board of Regents proved unpopular with miscellaneous state leaders. The Legislature put a measure on the 2006 ballot to create a mix of appointed and elected board members. It was narrowly defeated.

In 2011, Gov. Brian Sandoval convinced the Nevada Legislature to change the elective Nevada Board of Education to a mix of appointed and elected members. This new law provides a whole mess of complicated and dubious provisions, including special interest rewards.

• One non-voting member is appointed by the Board of Regents.

• Three non-voting members are appointed by lobby groups—the Nevada Association of School Boards, the Nevada Association of School Superintendents, and the Nevada Association of Student Councils.

• And there’s another overlay of requirements—one of the above members must be a teacher approved by the Nevada State Education Association, another must be a businessperson, and a third must be a parent of a public school student.

• One voting member each is appointed by the speaker of the Nevada Assembly and the majority leader of the Senate, a sharp breach of the separation of powers. In addition, the majority leader is not actually a legislative official, but an official of a political party—a private organization.

• The remaining four voting members are elective and must now run not from their former small local districts but from the state’s U.S. House districts, making it more expensive to run and reducing the number of candidates who can afford to run.

• To make some of this technically legal, the governor makes the appointments. But he can only appoint from names supplied to him by the lobby groups or legislators, meaning they, not the governor, are actually deciding who sits on the board. The governor is allowed only a single appointment of a voting member. On the current board, that is Elaine Wynn.

Are the sentiments of Nevada voters likely to find their way through this Rube Goldberg arrangement?

At one time, virtually every sheriff in the nation was elected. But appointive sheriffs have become common enough that the National Sheriff’s Association has issued a paper opposing them: “The sheriff provides a check and balance as an elected county official directly responsible to the citizens that protects from undue influence by members of the county board or by other county officials. … History has shown in those jurisdictions in which the sheriff is appointed there is a decrease in quality and continuity of law enforcement services and administration. When the sheriff is subject to the whims and caprices of the board of commissioners, the office becomes more politicized, not less. … [Elected sheriffs provide] stability and continuity of office.”

At one point in Broward County, Florida, however, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel editorialized for appointment: “Broward does not need a professional politician heading an independent political fiefdom, chosen on the basis of charisma, aggressive public relations, party label or the ability to do favors, raise money and win votes.”

On school superintendents, Nevada is flanked by California—which elects its state superintendent—and Utah, which appoints. Nevada had a superintendent appointed by the board of education until 2011, when the legislature handed the appointment power over to the governor. Gov. Sandoval appointed James Guthrie as his first superintendent, then forced him out after Guthrie took some public stances of which the governor did not approve. Sandoval then appointed a former member of his office staff who had also headed a state culture agency, Dale Erquiaga, to the post.

The issue is being debated now in Indiana, where the legislature is considering a measure to make the currently elective post into an appointive position.

The Muncie Star Press last week editorialized, “We believe voters—that is, parents—ought to have a direct say in what’s best for Indiana students. The state school superintendent ought to be directly accountable to voters, not to the governor. … It’s a sure bet an appointed state school chief would follow lockstep with the governor, making the governor accountable for the state’s education policies. It should be noted that education accounts for more than half of the state’s budget.”

But Marian University President Dan Elsener said appointment helps build consensus by eliminating dissenting views: “I think [appointment] creates better alignment in governance so that the governor and the state superintendent and the board are all in alignment. Teachers, principals and superintendents all deserve to know who’s accountable to whom and that there’s one agenda, not two or three.”

In the Indiana case, the appointment legislation surfaced in order to strike out at the current incumbent of the superintendent’s chair.

Political scientist Fred Lokken argues, “All too often we have an electorate in the state of Nevada where at best 40 percent show up. Some of them feel they don’t know the issues and stay home.”

He said studies have show U.S. voters on average must make 150 ballot decisions, while in Britain that number is five, showing the difficulty U.S. voters have staying informed on all offices.

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Dennis Myers

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...