Bond Foes, Friends Make Pact
For School District Reforms

  by Steve Miller
  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

After four days of secret negotiations and a startling last-minute pact Saturday night, organized opponents of Tuesday's Washoe County School District's $196 million bond ballot issue have agreed to support the measure.
The price? Fiscal constraints on the school district, specifically:
  • A management audit of the school district prior to the second, October 1997, phase of bond sales;
  • A new, high-profile role for the school board's financial advisory committee;
  • Thorough, updated studies of multi-track, year-round schooling before the district again seeks any more bonds.
With preliminary surveys indicating the school bond was headed for a solid defeat Tuesday, say leaders of the Citizens Associated for Responsible Education in our Schools (CARES), they began seeking a deal with the school district early last week.
"We always had an interest in the welfare of the students. It was my feeling that we could get a negotiated agreement that gave us everything we wanted," said paid CARES consultant Mike Reed.
"When it became apparent to me that we were likely to win, then we had real negotiating strength."
That a major school district defeat was imminent was the reading produced Friday by a cursory EN sampling of previously undecided Truckee Meadows voters. It also was supported by interviews with some experienced local election observers.
"I think it's going down," said one long-time Truckee Meadows political observer, who asked to remain anonymous because of a sensitive position.
"I don't think they've convinced anyone. That's [school district spokesman Steve] Mulvenon's problem. He's out there busting his balls on all these TV programs, and I just don't think [people are] buying," said the source.
"They're trying to make an argument, and I just don't think it comes through. I live in an area that's supposed to get a high school, or at least some kind of a school. And people in this neighborhood are going to vote against it.
"I think it's going down," he repeated. "I don't see how they can pass it."
Other observers also saw sentiment hardening against the bond proposal.
When Electric Nevada first located CARES strategist Reed on Friday, and asked if his group was going to match plans by bond proponents to send precinct-walking volunteers out this weekend, he said 'no,' and added he didn't think it would be productive.
Not only would it be the Labor Day weekend, when many people are gone or simply don't want to be bothered, he said. Indications are also that Truckee Meadows voters have already firmly made up their minds.
What "I found in the last week," said Reed, "is that if you go around and talk to ten people, and ask them if they've made up their mind on how they're going to vote, you're almost going to get ten people saying 'yes.'
"I don't think there's very many undecided. And the way you sway elections is by convincing the undecided bloc.
"If there isn't one, basically the election is all over. People are just going to walk in and vote the way they've already come down.
"That's where we are," he said. "People are very passionate on either side of this issue."
Reed decline to forecast victory, but did acknowledge indications swing voters seemed to be siding with CARES.
Should Truckee Meadows voters decide to vote 'no' on the school bond issue Tuesday, it will be a serious repudiation of Washoe County School District leadership.
Not only have the school district's superintendent, Mary Nebgen, and spokesman, Steve Mulvenon, been stumping the community in advocacy for months, but bond plan backers appear to have put much more money and people into the campaign than have their opponents.
As of Friday, August 30, the pro-bond Citizens Committee to Support Our Schools [CCSOS] had filed forms with the Washoe County Registrar of Voters reporting a total raised of $15,375, while the anti-bond group, CARES, has reported a total raised of $11,780.
However, Gazette-Journal reporter Benjamin Grove wrote August 18 that the pro-bond CCSOS had raised "about $50,000" to handle television and radio spot ads, and some 20,000 targeted voter mailings.
CARES leader James F. Clark has asked the Nevada Secretary of State's office to look into the discrepancy, arguing that the television campaign fielded by CCSOS suggests expenditures more in line with the reported $50,000 than the financial filings of the pro-bond group.
"I think it's against federal FCC regulations to give political ads on credit, so I'm not sure how they could have filed that statement on August 19, which was after the TV ads began to run, without disclosing the expenditure or the additional money [which] would have paid for it," said Clark.
In addition to the larger budget, proponents of bond passage say they are deploying the long-running and well-tested get-out-the-vote operation of the Nevada State Education Association [NSEA] this week-end.
"It's the same kind of campaign that we do for assembly people, and for senate, and for school board races," says CCSOS member Virginia Doran, a leader of the Washoe County Teachers Association who was reached at the Reno offices of the NSEA.
"You identify the precincts that have a history of voter turnout. We've analyzed the precincts with regard to the last two bond issues -- where in fact they've carried bond issues in the past -- and we've added to that precincts where some of the new schools are going to be built because of the terrible overcrowding."
Those targeted precincts, she said, held an initial 36,000 voters.
"Then you get a list of registered voters. You use
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a company to do what they call a phone match, because obviously you don't get phone numbers from the registrar's office."
With voter's names and addresses from the county registrar now matched to telephone numbers, volunteers on the phone banks begin contacting voters to discuss the bond issue with them. For those names and addressees on the registrar's list where no matching phone number is found, says Doran, a mailing piece will be dispatched -- at least until funds run out.
Most of the CCSOS group's money is going into television and radio advertising, she said, explaining that the ability to field volunteers gives the WCTA and like organizations an advantage.
"We have a lot of people who will walk precincts, And so that's another way to get the word out and the pieces out. So we probably have walkers out targeting at least, probably, 15,000 voters," she said.
After the initially targeted 36,000 voters, she said, "we added to that [the] various people who called up and said 'I want to walk my neighborhood.'
"And so after you cover your targeted precincts, then you start adding to that, as you have walkers and volunteers. And you use the same kind of process -- number of voters, voter turnout -- those kinds of things," said Doran.
Although she was reached at the NSEA's Reno headquarters, the WCTA's Doran denied any NSEA involvement in the effort to pass the bond issue.
"The NEA and NSEA is not involved in this at all. We're just ... in our building, which is a conduit, right here. [It's] for a central location for people to pick up signs and walking pieces and so forth."
She said that potential volunteers are recruited through a network of representatives throughout the school district.
"We have at least one rep at least in every school building and we just tell them, 'These are the activities that are going to take place If you're interested in doing anything, you call.'"
The propriety of taxpayer-paid public employees possibly using their positions to seek higher levies on tax payers came up as an issue several times in Electric Nevada's Friday interviews.
School district spokesman Steve Mulvenon acknowledged that he had accepted checks to fund the CCSOS's pro-bond campaign at his district office.
"To the best of my recollection it happened twice," he said "Don't hold me to this, but I think on one of those two occasions ... it was actually the Laborers' union.
"They sent a couple of guys up and said, 'What do we do with this check?' And I said, 'I can get it to the committee, if you want to leave it with me.'
As of Friday, no contribution from such a labor organization had been listed with the county registrar's office.
Away from his desk, Mulvenon was able to -- from memory -- correctly give Electric Nevada the office telephone number of CCSOS treasurer Dave Bianchi.
"I believe Dave's number is 826-1727," said Mulvenon.
He then volunteered, "The reason I'm not all that familiar with it is I wasn't a member of that committee."
"I met with them on a couple of occasions just to kind of keep lines of communications open, and when they had specific questions about the bond issue I was their resource person... for what's in it and how does this work and how does that work. But that was a private citizen's group."
According to WCTA leader Doran, Mulvenon was scheduled to help run the CCSOS phone-bank operation Friday evening.
Though she would try to answer EN 's questions, she said, "whatever I can't answer, I'll get Steve Mulvenon from the district to call you. He'll be here at 5 o'clock to help me run the phone banks, so if I can't answer something I'll have Steve call you."
Similarly, Mr. Mulvenon's name came up when Electric Nevada telephoned the offices of the McMullen Strategic Group.
The firm's principal, major Nevada legislative lobbyist Sam McMullen, who later explained he has been contributing his services to the CCSOS effort since early this year, initially answered the phone: "Steve Mulvenon?"
And later, when the Electric Nevada reporter said, "I take it you're working closely with Steve Mulvenon?" McMullen answered:
"Yeah. Actually, Steve and I have talked over the last few months, but he works more closely with Dave Bianchi."
McMullen said he had joined the pro-bond effort after meeting Mulvenon early this year at a Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce informational meeting.
"I guess I'd say I know a little about politics, and I was interested in helping [do] something responsible on this thing and that's what I've been doing."
He noted that he was taking no fee for helping the CCSOS effort, while his opposite number on the CARES side, Mike Reed, was being paid, according to CARES filings, $9,000.
He also said that criticisms leveled by CARES regarding CCSOS filings at the county registrar stemmed in part from mix-ups when two pro-bond advocacy groups had been folded into the one remaining CCSOS group.
All of the $15,375 reported as of Friday by the Citizens Committee to Support Our Schools on forms filed with the Washoe County Registrar of Voters, came from building industry or contractor sources.
Listed as contributors were: United Construction, $5,000; Clark & Sullivan Constructors, Inc., $5,000; Associated General Contractors, $1250; Nevada Construction Industry Promotion Bureau, $1,000; Employers Contract, $1,000; Construction Industry, $1,000; Contract Administration Fund, $750.

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