Washoe County School District officials doubled down in defense of the actions they are taking to fire Superintendent Traci Davis. District officials on Friday said that they had incontrovertible evidence that Davis either knew about or leaked information in an investigation related to former administrator Jenny Hunt, who is suing the district for alleged sexual discrimination and retaliation.
“Evidence shows that Ms. Davis either deliberately provided confidential information to [recently fired Chief of Staff David] Lasic for him to use against the District,orwith grossnegligence allowed him access to it,” said district spokesperson Megan Downs.
Davis, through her attorney Bill Peterson, said that did not happen.
“The allegation is that Davis deliberately leaked information or allowed it,” Peterson said. “That did not occur.”
“Those lies did more to harm the district than being forthcoming ever could have done.”
ThisisReno sent on Saturday a list of questions to the district in response to their document dump and Friday night news release. They responded Monday.
WCSD denied misleading the public last week. Numerous comments on social media denounced School Board President Katy Simon Holland’s comments to the news media about Davis’ absence.
I asked Board President Katy Simon Holland on Tuesday what the precipitating factors were that prompted Davis to go on leave.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You are 100% clear you have no idea why Traci Davis has taken leave at this time?” I repeated.
“All the information I have is that she’s taking leave for personal reasons,” Simon Holland said. “You have as much information as I do about that.”
I asked if anybody else at the district had information.
“I wouldn’t know who has information about it,” she replied.
Simon Holland was, in fact, the one who gave Davis a letter dated June 13 notifying her of a special meeting to consider her character and professional competence.
I asked Simon Holland again later in the week. She said she was unaware of any legal communications between Davis and the district. Comments released in a Friday press release show Simon Holland quickly changed her tune.
She announced that she had “reviewed the substantial evidence received by the School District, and after Ms. Davis’ lack of timely response, I feel the Board needs to discuss her communication to the district and this evidence, in an open public meeting and possibly take action. These were reasons why I didn’t share specifics and details of our situation at the time.”
District officials denied that their statements were misleading.
“No one encouraged anyone to mislead the public,” spokesperson Downs asserted.
Is The District Being Defamed?
School district employees and journalists were critical of the district’s statements. WCSD officials further said that to suggest Simon Holland was lying or misleading could be construed as defamation. (The district has in the past issued veiled warnings against its critics claiming they were engaging in defamation.)
”We were not given reasons for Ms. Davis’ leave of absence, and that is what was stated. For all we knew, she was preparing a resignation or had left town,” Downs said. “Ms. Davis had been given the evidence and she was being provided a reasonable opportunity to explain or respond to it, and she did neither.
“Because the Board can only act in a public meeting, and no change in her status could legally be made at that point, there was nothing else that could be said or done at that time.”
“The district being driven by legal has put them in a bad light in the court of public opinion.”
“The fact that Holland was being less than truthful became painfully obvious when, on Friday, she admitted that she didn’t tell the full truth so as not to ‘harm the district,’ but those lies did more to harm the district than being forthcoming ever could have done. I mean, who did she think she was fooling?” he wrote.
Downs, in a cagey statement to ThisisReno, said that “there are laws related to defamation and accusing people of lying.”
Las Vegas-based First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza called this comment laughable.
“It sounds pretty clear that they are lying,” he said. “And it sounds like there’s a reasonable basis for saying that.”
Based on the exchange above, Randazza said he would be “comfortable with a headline that says, ‘Board President Lies to ThisisReno About Firing.’ I don’t see anything wrong with that. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it ain’t malice.
“It would be an exquisite pleasure for any First Amendment lawyer to file [an] Anti-SLAPP [motion] against a public entity stupid enough to file a defamation suit on those facts,” he added.
District Suggests Davis’ Attorney Should Recuse Himself
District officials also admitted Monday that they suspected leaks were being provided to fired administrator Jenny Hunt as far back as 2017.
“Leaks were suspected at the time of the original investigation in 2017, but the district deals in evidence not in speculation. In May of 2019, [outside legal counsel Anthony] Hall received discovery in a separate case that contained private phone text messages and private email messages during a workplace investigation,” according to Downs.
District spokesperson Megan Downs also suggested, when asked about potential conflicts of interest for the district’s internal and outside legal counsel, that Davis’ attorney, William Peterson, should recuse himself from defending Davis.
“If anyone should recuse himself in this matter, it is Mr. Peterson, Ms. Davis’ chosen legal counsel,” she said. “He represented someone adverse to Davis in this very same investigation and now he is representing Davis. It would be a violation of the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct for him to use information gained in that previous representation to represent Davis.”
“I have represented many people against the school district over the years,” he told ThisisReno, also citing the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct regarding duties to former clients. “Nothing I learned in my former representations is being used against or to the disadvantage of any of my former clients.
“Also, I have never been adverse to Traci Davis, only the school district, but even if I was, that would be an issue for Tracy Davis, not WCSD.”
PR Handling Scrutinized
Signs point to a continued public relations crisis for the district, one that may be costly.
Meantime, community members are expressing frustration over the situation, calling it an embarrassment. One commenter called Washoe County School District the worst-run district in the country.
A veteran public relations professional had this to say:
“Your years of a lack of transparency and questions of your accountability are catching up with you in a time that you need it most,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “A lot of times legal will shut down communications as part of their strategy, and that’s not always wise.
“You can say ‘no comment’ without saying no comment. The district being driven by legal has put them in a bad light in the court of public opinion.”
An attorney commenting online concurred.
“It often seems like [their legal advisers] are getting paid to walk their clients into liability issues and poor optics, all unforced errors,” he said.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.