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

By Bob Conrad
Published: Last Updated on

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.

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