Home > News > “Power Struggle”: Teacher Contracts Not Renewed at High Desert Montessori School

“Power Struggle”: Teacher Contracts Not Renewed at High Desert Montessori School

By Bob Conrad
High Desert Montessori School. Image: Bob Conrad.

Parents Call For Principal’s Removal

Parents and students are demanding answers — and action — after it came to light that teachers’ contracts were not going to be renewed for the upcoming school year at the High Desert Montessori School (HDMS).

A tense meeting on May 29 revealed that many are concerned with the charter school’s leadership. Principal Rhonda Turnipseed allegedly did not renew contracts for a handful of teachers and a teacher’s assistant.

Some of the teachers are long-term employees of the school, and many of the school’s teachers are asking the school’s board of directors not to renew her contract. Turnipseed started at HDMS in the fall of 2018.

“Up until this [school] year it was an absolute joy to come to work every day,” said teacher Elyse Niemann, who spoke during public comment at the May meeting. “However, outside the classroom, there has been an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and a sense that our community is coming apart at the seams.

“Faculty have never given Turnipseed a break — from day one.”

“Because of recent events, when a colleague spoke up with concerns, and was not offered a job for next year, speaking out in public like this makes me fear that I may not have a position here in the future; yet, I cannot stand by and say nothing as I watch people being mistreated. I do not want to work in this climate.”

Niemann asked the board to intervene. Another teacher, whose contract was not renewed, said Turnipseed’s leadership style was not a fit with the Montessori method.

“What is right legally and what is right ethically are two different things,” explained Katrina Reinhardt, whose last day at HDMS was today. “The administrators are not the bosses. The parents ask us to make the right decision for their children because we’re the experts … and we’re credentialed in Montessori training.

“[Turnipseed] doesn’t have that [training],” she added. “A lot of this is Montessori ways of communication, respect … the framework for our school. Everything is based on mutual respect for different people’s opinions and being collaborative. We’ve [never] been bulldozed like this.”

“Power Struggle”

One source speaking off the record called the situation a power struggle between teachers and the principal and that two positions were eliminated as part of an internal restructuring, not the alleged retaliation.

“Faculty have never given Turnipseed a break — from day one,” the person said. “Who runs the school? The teachers or principal? A small, vocal minority are [pushing this issue].”

Reinhardt, though, said she wants the board to intervene.

“We’re asking them to not sign her contract for next year,” Reinhardt said.

Parents are also expressing their concerns, and many teachers penned a letter of no confidence against Turnipseed.

High Desert Montessori School Principal Rhonda Turnipseed.
High Desert
Montessori School
Principal Rhonda

An email to the board’s chair, Terry Fowler, that claimed to represent students, parents, and teachers, was unequivocal.

“We collectively believe that Rhonda Turnipseed should no longer serve as Principal of High Desert Montessori,” a parent wrote. “We request immediately reinstall of the teachers and proper notice to all teachers for a one-year contract. We believe further that the Board members were not all notified of what was going on.”

Parents said they were concerned and surprised to hear teacher contracts were not renewed. Students tearfully testified in support of the teachers at the meeting, and one board member resigned in protest at the end of the meeting.

HDMS was called for comment, but an employee said to send an email to the chair of the board, Fowler, and Turnipseed. An emailed request for comment was not returned by the time of publication. (This story may be updated with further comments and information.)

Open Meet Law Protocols Questioned

Board Secretary Scott Hernandez raised concerns about the board and potential open meeting law violations.

“Notice issues are the big thing,” he said at the May meeting.

The board approved an internal restructuring, which reduced the school’s middle-school faculty from four to two, as part of its budget approval during the board’s March meeting, Hernandez said.

But that statement perplexed members of the audience, prompting more than one person to say they were never aware that teacher reductions were part of the budget.

“I can’t serve on this board anymore … for my own mental health.”

“I’m angry at this board for approving this budget without knowing what the budgetary items were,” one parent remarked.

Indeed, the March meeting’s agenda was vague. Item 10 from the agenda indicates, “2019-20 Tentative Budget (FOR POSSIBLE ACTION).”

Nevada’s open meeting law mandates that meeting agendas must consist of “a clear and complete statement of the topics scheduled to be considered during the meeting.”

The minutes from the March meeting are not available on the HDMS website. The file labeled March Minutes includes the March meeting agenda but February’s meeting minutes.

Hernandez, an attorney, requested that the board hire independent legal counsel to provide guidance to the board.

“We need to look at what happened, or what has happened; we need to look at what the law says about those things,” he said. “What are the board powers, responsibilities, and personal liabilities? Last, but not least, what are we ultimately going to do? We need to seek legal advice on these issues.”

Other board members did not support his motion for that request. He resigned his volunteer position in protest.

“I’m tired,” he explained. “This has been such a difficult, thankless position. We had to hire Rhonda. We got tons of blowback. It was awful. If you love HDMS, don’t serve on the board.

“I’m disappointed in my colleagues. I really am. There’s a lack of review on documents. There are other ways to deal with this. I can’t serve on this board anymore … for my own mental health.”

The school’s board of directors is meeting Monday at 5 p.m. to discuss these issues further.

Nearly everyone providing comment for this story called the situation highly unfortunate.

“It’s a wonderful school that provides a very fine education,” a parent proclaimed.



Doreen Estes June 7, 2019 - 5:32 am

My daughter is a teacher at High Desert Montessori School and I am so concerned for the mental well being and stress  this Principal, Rhonda Turnipseed has ejected on my daughter Jessica Estes, and the students of her class ! Shame on the administrative board and Principal of the school for not listening to needs and concerns of the students, parents and teachers ! The Principal Rhonda Turnipseed needs to be removed from her position and teachers and aides renew their contracts for the next year

Sean Alto June 6, 2019 - 8:23 pm

This whole place is hot garbage. I’ve never seen Rhonda, she just doesn’t have a presence. The teachers bicker and gossip, honestly, Kaleigh is the only teacher there worth a damn, as evidenced by her award this year. I’m so happy my daughter is going to another school next year. While I believe Montessori is an excellent idea, most of HDMS had found a way to turn it into a toxic environment for children, which starts directly from the top… If you look at the other comments here, you can see a direct example of the passive aggressive nature of the staff.

You should all be ashamed of your behavior, most of all in a public forum.

calind board June 9, 2019 - 8:58 pm

I am a student that graduated from the school this year and would like to say that most of the teachers being fired are really good and kind and I know ms kaleigh is good but others are good to hopefully all of the teacher can get thier jobs back in the next year

Katrina Reinhardt June 6, 2019 - 8:28 am

I am concerned with the lack of respect for parents and teachers. And children to be quite frank. Administration needs to take many things into account when making decisions. They have to make tough decisions, but transparency is crucial both to families and staff. Administration is not the boss, they are part of a team that everyone plays their part in! As I tell the children in my class, I am not “the boss” and either are you, we are working together for what is best for the whole class. We create rules together, we collaborate ideas. Every One has good ideas, and has something to contribute, but if you just boss people around, it serves only yourself! Yes, Dawn was my assistant for half the year after taking Montessori assistant training, and she was not there to serve the children or be part of a team, instead she felt like she knew best. She is unapproachable by staff and children, as she is often not patient or helpful when we need things to be done. She has deliberately not made ice packs for the children because she said ” they just loose them anyway” children need ice when they get hurt. I offered to make more, but she is stubborn, and said ” no”. The children are always my priority, and apparently this is not Dawn’s priority as she has shown again and again. This school is falling apart, and adding a principle who pits people against each other is dividing us all to take sides. Healthy communication used to be the goal, and it is a shame how this has changed the entire foundation. It is crumbling and children should always come first, not petty disagreements. The Montessori philosophy is built into our Mission Statement, and training should be considered essential for understanding How to deliver this effectively!!

Dawn Chamblin June 6, 2019 - 7:46 am

I would like to ask this question of Katrina Reinhardt, if the administrators are not the bosses then who are? I think it is important that she realize that being a trained Montessori Teacher does not give her or any other teacher the ability to run a school. This statement alone should cause a stop in the thinking that Rhonda does not have what it takes to successfully lead HDMS. I would also like to point out that everyone should stop and reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses and learn from them. I worked in the classroom with Ms Teinhardt and chose to move into another position because of the inconsistency with her leadership in her classroom and lack of ability to work as a team. I along with several others found it not conducive to a healthy work environment in her classroom.

I have been involved with this school in some way or another for the better part of 9 years. I have seen. Change in administration, staffing etc in this time and I can say with absolute confidence that I still believe in this educational institution and the administration’s ability to cause the growth needed to sustain and progress appropriately in the coming years.

I would encourage those that are looking to create mass hysteria and those that are in the habit of saying we will not listen to any other opinion, to stop. Breathe, listen and be wliing to bring g plans for growth to the table and stop behaving as if yours are the only ideas that work or are worth listening to.

We should never stop growing or learning and as Montessorians I expect that we all live by that.

Alissa Surges June 13, 2019 - 9:08 am

Hi, Dawn: Former PTO chair here. I’m disheartened by your response to Katrina, as you—a representative of management—are speaking in ways that are illustrating a sense of disrespect toward the teachers. Your comments (e.g., “mass hysteria”) reflect an ethos—or lack thereof—of the belief that the teachers just need to “breathe,” which I read as “shut up.” As the parent of a former HDMS student, I am relieved not to be part of the toxic environment this administration has created.

Dawn Chamblin June 13, 2019 - 11:07 am

In no way am I saying “shut up” to anyone. Iwhat I am saying is that all of us that are part of the community need to breathe and think about what we can bring to the table to improve a community that I know is better than the things being thrown around.

I believe EVERYONE there should have a voice and that includes those of us that were not part of the letter to the board. It is crucial that we come to the table with an open mind and ideas of collaboration.

There is much more that needs to be discussed than just that letter or the premise behind it.

I have great respect for the teachers, even the ones that were the signers of the said letter. We have very gifted teachers. I am grateful for their dedication to our students.

Accountability needs to be held across the table however for professional behavior and the thing that is a great part of the Montessori philosophy. Grace and courtesy.

I can not sit by and watch the “mzjority” of my colleagues be treated as if their thoughts and opinions are less than that of a particular group.

I agree with one thing Katrina said and that is this, we all have ideas and things to bring to the table. But first it is vital the table is the first stop. We can not circumvent the process of discussion as a whole.

I believe in High Desert and all that it has to offer. I believe in the teachers and the administration. I have great respect for Tammie and did have even when this same group of people chose to “throw her under the bus” for lack of a better term, this same time last year.

I made my comment based on personal experience with that teacher. I made it to demonstrate that there is more than one side to all of this.

Regarding the mass hysteria, I am referring to former parents who chose to perpetuate rumors through text messages etc. Statements that were not true that in fact created mass hysteria. Rather than getting facts and information gathering they chose to start spreading quite a disruptive amount of misinformation.

I will stand by my statements.
There are many facets to the truth here.

Alissa Surges June 13, 2019 - 1:43 pm

Statements from parents are part of everyone having a voice. Criticizing a community (once again, you used the words “mass hysteria”) for responding passionately to multiple, veteran teachers being fired via form letter—and after these teachers had addressed issues with the administration—is not in line with the belief that “EVERYONE” has a voice.

Dawn, as someone in administration, you represent the school, and I would be more inclined to hear your side if you had not slandered parents and Katrina in public comments. Your comments certainly don’t reflect your assertion that you and the administration respect the HDMS community.

Dawn Chamblin June 13, 2019 - 4:22 pm

I absolutely agree that parents should have a voice also. I’m not arguing that. But if you are going to listen to one side then you need to be willing to listen to all sides. That includes those that arent the same as others. If you read my response you will see that I referred to the manner in which information was miscommunicated created a “mass hysteria” environment.

We will just have to agree to disagree on this matter.

I love HDMS and the families that attend as well as my colleagues. I again think they are all wonderful and am thankful for their part in this community. As I said there are many facets to this that many do not see. We can all do better. I have faith that we will.

If you find my statements slanderous I’m sorry. Again we will have to agree to disagree.

Alissa Surges June 14, 2019 - 9:37 am

I’ve listened to many sides, and you and I certainly do disagree. Your comments did not help in furthering the administration’s story. Grace and courtesy are indeed needed on the administration’s behalf. I hope HDMS is able to move past this debacle.

Dave Morgan June 17, 2019 - 8:16 am

Entirely too much democracy is going on in this school. There is a toxic atmosphere that must be acknowledged and then something done about it. Montessori Schools run like clockwork all over this country. A little monkey-see monkey-do might be called for. There comes a time for healthy egos to collaborate. Not open fire on each other. Good structure begets good outcomes. The Montessori template is a winner. But too many chefs spoil the soup. I’m sure the Montessori template can be imported to Reno-Sparks. Here’s a start to calm egos and reduce tensions: https://amshq.org/

Elizabeth Whitley June 13, 2019 - 12:48 pm

Well said, Alissa! I hope goodness prevails and everyone who loves HDMS has the courage to speak the truth. This is an unfortunate circumstance that is hopefully very short-lived. People’s livelihoods are being put on the line. I truly feel sorry for my former co-workers. I hope everyone realizes what a gem HDMS is, a public charter Montessori school with trained teachers is hard to come by. And in our current political and societal climate we could really use some good old-fashioned Maria Montessori style “Grace and Courtesy” being taught in our schools. I look forward to more updates. Thank you for the article.

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