School Board president faces challenge from community organizer in District D

By: - October 11, 2022 5:59 am

Clark County School Board President Irene Cepeda (left) and Brenda Zamora are competing to represent District D. (Cepeda photo courtesy CCSD, Zamora photo courtesy the candidate)

The Clark County School Board trustee once seen as the swing vote between two deeply divided factions faces her first reelection attempt this November. Incumbent Irene Cepeda is being challenged by Brenda Zamora, a mother of three with a background in community organizing and civic engagement.

Cepeda is probably best known as the trustee who one year ago voted to fire Superintendent Jesus Jara, then rescinded her vote less than a month later. Since then, Cepeda has become school board president, a position that gives her more say in what goes on school board meeting agendas and when those meetings are held.

Earlier this month, the School Board deemed Jara to be “highly effective” and extended his contract until 2026. The votes were split 4-3, with Cepeda joining Lola Brooks, Evelyn Garcia Morales and Katie Williams in support. Trustees Danielle Ford, Linda Cavazos and Lisa Guzman opposed. The contract secures the controversial superintendent with a $395,000 annual salary — a $75,000 annual bump from his previous salary. It also ensures that any future “firing for convenience” — what the board did and undid last year — would be a costly endeavor.

Cepeda defends her handling of the evaluation and contract extension, saying it came down to scheduling and giving the board enough time to find a successor were the board to vote against contract renewal. Jara’s contract had been set to expire early next year.

“It would take us months,” she said of potentially finding a new superintendent. “We needed to make that decision now.”

Cepeda says the evaluation criteria for Jara aligned with overall goals of school safety, disproportionality and the teacher shortage.

“Just because those are the three goals doesn’t mean everything else is forgotten about,” she added.

Cepeda said CCSD’s human resources team is working out how to address the salary compression issue that emerged when the district earlier this year bumped the salary for educators who are within their first five years of teaching. The district gave established teachers a one-time $5,000 retention bonus.

“I know it seems unfair,” she said, “but at the end of the day, $43,000 a year for a new teacher wasn’t doing it. The biggest impact we could have was bumping (teachers in) those first five years.”

The starting salary for teachers within CCSD is now $50,000 annually.

Cepeda said that work, which was funded by federal covid relief, provides a base on which to leverage the Legislature to take action on raising salaries for veteran teachers.

“Think of how detrimental it’d be if we went (into session) with no chief, with no leader,” she added.

Brenda Zamora, a first-time candidate who is hoping to unseat Cepeda, says she is more worried about the fallout from the contract extension.

“I have seen, anyone can see, the frustrations from our teachers,” she said. “They’ve said, ‘If he gets renewed, we’re out.’ We deserve better. They completely deserve better.”

As a member of the public, Zamora supported the firing of Jara. She says she attended that school board meeting with her baby in tow because attending was that important to her. But Zamora is not quick to promise to pursue firing Jara if she were to unseat Cepeda and reshift the board’s power — a scenario that would likely require incumbents Danielle Ford and Linda Cavazos retain their seats.

“I would love to sit down and do a pros and cons list at this point,” said Zamora.

On her end, Cepeda says she hasn’t had the time to sit down and think about the potential makeup of the board post-elections and what it might mean for Jara: “It’s personally lower on my ‘things to worry about’ list.”

On top of that list, continued Cepeda, is trying to turn the embattled board into “a highly functional” one.

Perhaps in that vein, CCSD has submitted a bill draft request (BDR) for the 2023 Legislative Session to propose legislation that “would establish standards and qualifications for all education-related oversight boards such as school board trustees and regents.”

More immediately, “at the forefront of my worries is that the school board stays focused,” said Cepeda. “We have a lot of student data. ‘Tis the season for a lot of reports from the state. And I need to make sure we are talking about that, that that is prioritized in all of our agendas.”

Zamora says she doesn’t want to be seen as a “wild card” but instead as a voice of reason and the voice of the community. Zamora’s professional background is in civic engagement and political activism. She is currently doing communications for Silver State Voices, a group focused on voter empowerment and engagement, and she has previously worked for other advocacy groups working on issues like mandatory paid sick days.

“I’ve proven that I am very involved in my community,” she says. “I’ve started from the bottom. I’ve been doing the groundwork. I am continuing that.”

If elected, Zamora would be the trustee with the youngest children — a fact she suggests has been lobbed as criticism.

“I know there are a lot of conversations about me being too busy, which is unfortunate,” she says. “The whole goal is to get our everyday folks to run for office.”

Her oldest daughter, a fourth grader at a CCSD school, has an individualized education plan (IEP) and Zamora is passionate about helping families like hers.

“I saw the struggles of IEP families,” she said. “We’d talk about what could be better. We’re all going through the same issues.”

Cepeda grew up in North Las Vegas and is a first-generation immigrant and first-generation college graduate, according to her CCSD bio. She currently works for Nevada State College.

Whichever woman wins the general election will earn $9,000 annually as a trustee. Members are elected for four-year terms. She will represent the Latino-heavy eastside District D.

In the five-candidate primary in June, Cepeda received 26.9% of votes while Zamora received 25%.

According to campaign contribution reports, Cepeda raised $8,150 from Jan. 1 through June 30. All but $650 of that came from two donors — the Clark County Education Association and the Vegas Chamber, which donated $5,000 and $2,500, respectively.

Zamora raised $9,576 from Jan. 1 through June 30. Her top donation of $1,800 came from an individual donor, but several political action committees have contributed to her campaign, including the Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 525 and Laborers Local 872.

Third quarter campaign reports, which cover candidate contributions and spending between July 1 and Sept. 30, are due to the state on Oct. 15.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.