(clockwise from top left) Incumbent Irene Cepeda, Steven Conger, Tavorra Elliott, Brenda Zamora and Fernando Romero are running for Clark County School Board in District B, which encompasses much of the northeast part of Clark County.
Clark County School Board Trustee Irene Cepeda cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision last October to fire the district’s superintendent. Then, less than a month later, she voted to rescind the vote, reinstating Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara until his contract ends early next year.
The about-face thrust Cepeda, who was already seen as the swing vote on an otherwise deeply divided school board, further into the spotlight of a local school board that many find so dysfunctional they want to replace it with an appointed or semi-appointed board. And now, the first-term incumbent representing the Latino-heavy eastside District D is faced with defending that decision against four political challengers: Fernando Romero, Steven Conger, Tavorra Elliott and Brenda Zamora.
The Current caught up with Cepeda and three of the four people seeking to replace her. The fourth candidate — Zamora — did not respond to the Current’s request for an interview.
The top two finishers in the June primary will face off in the November general election. School Board trustees serve four-year terms.
Who they are
Irene Cepeda was elected to Clark County School Board in 2018 after defeating Kevin Child, a controversial incumbent once banned by a superintendent from visiting the schools within his district. Cepeda was well funded and endorsed by labor groups. She also had a strong showing during that year’s primary, garnering 47% of the vote.
A first-generation immigrant and first-generation college graduate, Cepeda currently works at Nevada State College on a grant program to expand the teacher pipeline to underrepresented populations.
Cepeda acknowledges the board has had years where it “didn’t have much focus” but says it has started to move in the right direction, especially this year. She says the board is focusing more on student outcomes and has identified specific goals to monitor — third grade reading, eighth grade math, and teacher recruitment and retention.
“There will always be a million and one issues because schools are an intersection — of education but also of all these additional social issues. Hunger, violence, housing, you name it, they come to school. There will alway be something, but if we do not have a focus, if we have no goals, we aren’t going to meet those goals.”
Steven Conger, a Southern Nevada native who graduated from Las Vegas Academy, has been involved with the backside of politics for nearly a decade, primarily as a legislative lobbyist and consultant. His educational experience has included being on the founding board and working in an advisory position with the conservative parent group Power2Parent.
Conger has also been an active, licensed substitute teacher since 2016.
He said his experience subbing in classrooms across the valley has taught him that every school has different capabilities, resources and needs. He described himself as a strong advocate for more decision making at the individual and school level. And he believes his lobbying experience will translate into being an effective trustee capable of navigating the ins and outs of the school board procedures and district policies.
Tavorra Elliott, also a Las Vegas native, says she is running for school board as a “working parent trying to manifest a successful student in this valley.” She is the mother of two CCSD students — one a freshman, the other a junior. While this is her first political run, Elliott notes she helped her uncle, Joshua Elliott, in his unsuccessful longshot congressional run in 2020 and has canvassed for other community causes over the years.
“My campaign is more than a momentary passion,” she added, “I feel it’s my call to action to be involved.”
Elliott said she’s concerned about school safety (including the number of officers on campuses), wasteful spending (she points to the district’s messy rollout of a new human resources management system), and teacher retention and recruitment.
Fernando Romero graduated from Nevada Southern University — what UNLV was called before it became UNLV — with a degree in education. He is currently president of Hispanics In Politics and has worked in a variety of roles over his long career, including being president of a bilingual education program adopted by CCSD in the 1980s.
“I have not taught one day in my life,” he says, “but all of my life has been servicing the Latino community and being an advocate.”
Romero has four children, the youngest of which is set to graduate from East Career & Technical Academy this year. Romero chairs East Career’s School Organizational Team and is a member of two other SOTs — Global Community and Rancho high schools.
He says he was compelled to run for school board because the current board “is not paying attention to students. Instead they are really opening the doors to charter and private schools, and diminishing the efficacy of public education.” Similarly, Romero is weary of calls to break up the school district because of the negative impact it is likely to have on eastside neighborhoods.
Zamora’s campaign website states she is a mother of three daughters, including one with an individualized education plan. According to her candidate disclosure form, Zamora works for Tides Advocacy, a California-based progressive nonprofit that works non political initiatives nationwide.
None of the candidates have raised substantial amounts for their primary runs, and most haven’t raised anything. According to campaign reports filed with the state, Romero received $750 in the first quarter of the year — $500 which came from prominent local education advocate Sylvia Lazos and $250 of which came from North Las Vegas City Councilman Isaac Barron.
Cepeda and Zamora reported no contributions. Conger gave $80 to his own campaign.
Elliott did not have a contribution report on file.
On the controversial vote and superintendent
Unlike some of her peers on the seven-member nonpartisan school board, Cepeda isn’t one to hold press conferences or get into public spats on social media. Even after her change of heart regarding the firing of Jara, she largely avoided giving a full explanation.
“I don’t want to be the type of person or elected official that when faced with additional information holds onto incorrect information and holds on to a vote just to save face,” Cepeda told the Current. “I recognize that it was a political hit, but I’m not here for politics.”
Cepeda declined to say exactly what new information changed her mind about Jara, offering only that she didn’t think it was her place to disclose private conversations she had with others, who she also declined to identify.
“My piece is I listened and recognized some of their truths, multiple truths, from multiple people,” she added.
Cepeda’s demurring on those specifics has sparked rumors of backdoor deals and made for easy criticism from her opponents. Fueling such talk is the fact that roughly two months after Jara was reinstated Cepeda became president of the school board, with the nomination and support of the trustees who backed Jara.
Romero believes Cepeda’s second vote “should be looked at,” and he criticized Cepeda for a lack of transparency: “People were totally surprised about what happened. To vote on the same issue but ‘oh, I changed my mind?’ Something convinced her to do otherwise. Was there an exchange? Was there a promise made to her?”
Romero believes Jara isn’t doing the job and has been afforded too much power over the trustees. He added that he believes Jara’s contract should not be extended past its current end date.
Elliott made her feelings on Jara crystal clear: “I would have fired him.”
Elliott said that Jara has a reputation among students of being apathetic. She referenced a recent video he released after the violent sexual assault and attempted murder of an El Dorado High School teacher by a student. Elliott said her son commented unprompted that it seemed like the superintendent “didn’t care” and was simply reading from a prompter.
“I’m a parent,” she added, “I don’t feel like he cares.”
Elliott also criticized reports that Jara is seeking a raise.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “It’s like watching your pastor pull up in a Cadillac and people having to walk up in wagons and jalopies to hear the service. Our teachers cannot make a decent living.”
Conger said the original vote to fire Jara “wasn’t a very careful decision,” but he lobbied his criticism beyond Cepeda and toward the board as a whole, saying it often doesn’t understand governmental procedures and legal consequences.
Conger didn’t express a firm position for or against Jara. He gave the superintendent credit for “being willing to stay on” at a district that has had a difficult time keeping its superintendents. But he was highly critical of Jara for giving his cabinet $400,000 in raises.
“That’s part of the problem,” he added. “Too much of the money and decision making is happening at the top.”
One final question…
The Current asked each challenger a final question: What’s one thing the school district or school board is doing well?
“They’re not always given credit for how many families they really support,” said Elliott. “We have 320,000 students. That’s 320,000 families. Not to mention the employees that service them. We are putting food on tables of so many, allowing them to buy homes and have viable employment. My mom was a custodian for 29 years. (She) raised me on her own. CCSD put a check on our table that we were very thankful for.”
“They make good promises,” said Romero, “but they don’t deliver. If you listen to Jara, it’s always ‘I’m gonna, we’re gonna, we’re looking…’ It’s never ‘we did this this.’ I don’t mean to be facetious but I don’t know of anything that they’re doing that’s right.”
Conger paused for a long time before finally replying, “Maybe that pause is my answer.” He then added, “They seem to pay their administrators well. That’s maybe about it.”
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