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Going off the rails on the gravy train (opinion)


Submitted By William Puchert

I recall a friend’s Facebook post from a few years ago about the Washoe County School District’s policy of extending the walk zone of students who live two miles away from their school in order to be eligible to catch the school bus:

“Yesterday I helped a little girl who was over a mile and a half away from home and having a terrible asthma attack from the smoke! Her mom was working across town and couldn’t get off work! This is why I’m so pissed! Our kids should not be walking over two miles to school! One hundred two (degrees) today and so smoky! And not to mention cold winters! Or registered sex offenders! The superintendent is making $377,000 a year! I thought school was about kids….not paychecks!”

Her post, circa August 2018, which was written when there were wildfires raging in neighboring California communities hence the smoke being mentioned, enraged me because I learned that in addition to exorbitant salaries, there were privileges like car allowances to the tune of $500 a month that some district administrators received.

However, it was nice to see WCSD Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill recently at least offer to donate $30,000 from her $265,000 annual salary back to the school district when her contract was recently approved by school board trustees.

I also remembered a few years ago the aging elementary school up the street from my home sending out fliers in my neighborhood for bake sales to raise funds for certain building improvements, like a new furnace.

These instances made me start to question some of the school district’s expenditures.

For example, over $8,000 was paid last summer to a Reno political juice PR firm, as the RGJ reported “for public relations help with press releases before and during the accusations against and firing of Superintendent Traci Davis.” The black eye the school district received from that whole saga really makes you wonder if that was money well spent.

There are plenty of other gems I’m sure I could mention, but my recent discovery of the types of events one trustee submitted mileage reimbursement for is infuriating and exemplifies the feeling of entitlement that one of our government officials has, how he prioritizes his political ambitions above serving the public interest and how the rules he makes do not apply to him. His responses to questions below this commentary reinforce this assertion.

A public record request I submitted found that since 2017, over $14,000 has been paid out to school board trustees in mileage reimbursement with District A Trustee Scott Kelley receiving the largest share of over $6,800. While he, his colleagues and former colleagues who filed mileage reimbursement expense reports listed trips that would reasonably fall under the duties of a school board trustee such as school visits, school board meetings and graduation ceremonies, Kelley filed for more unusual trips that none of his colleagues did, such as parades, beauty pageants, sporting events and even to and from the school district office to check his mail and turn in his mileage reimbursement reports!

Another public record request found that on his first term as a District E Trustee on the board (2009-2013), Kelley was reimbursed nearly $5,000. Some of the events he then listed are suspect because his attendance could be interpreted for more political reasons:

Kelley attended numerous City of Reno Neighborhood Advisory Board Meetings throughout his first term. These included NAB meetings in Northwest Reno (Ward 5) and Northeast Reno (Ward 4), which did include schools in his District E at the time. However, he also attended NAB Meetings in South Reno (Ward 2) outside of his district. City of Reno NAB meetings generally include its board members, the city council member representing that ward and other city staff. It would be rare to see a school board trustee present unless there was an issue related to schools.

Furthermore, according to Kelley’s campaign web site, he was a member of the Ward 4 NAB from 2010 to 2013 which leads one to wonder in what capacity did he attend those meetings? Why would he bill the school district for business he conducted serving on a City of Reno volunteer board?

Another question that arises about his NAB activity from viewing his reimbursement reports, was that he listed a Northwest Reno address residence that was outside the Ward 4 area board that he served.

Kelley also listed on his reimbursement report for attending an event featuring former Vice President Joe Biden at Galena High School in January 2012, which is located outside of the district he was representing at the time. According to a Las Vegas Sun article, the event was a campaign stop for the Obama/Biden Campaign.

While the existing trustee’s mileage reimbursement policy(updated in November, 2009)  does allow for most of these events to be listed on his reports and in the answers below he cites as legal, the optics look more political because he ran as a candidate for Reno City Council At Large Seat in 2012.

One could argue this activity was more of a promotional means of achieving that goal.

In addition to running for that city council seat eight years ago, Kelley has also been a candidate and an applicant for other various local offices for the past two decades. In addition to being elected to the school board twice in 2008 and 2016 in two different districts, he was also a candidate for Reno City Council Ward 4 Seat in 2002 and 2006. In between his last two terms on the school board, Kelley also applied for the Reno City Council At Large seat vacated by Hillary Schieve, and applied for the At Large District G School Board Trustee Seat, vacated by Barbara McLaury in 2016.

This paints a picture of an ambitious politician abusing privileges at our community’s expense. It is also frustrating when there are those who have to suffer, like the aforementioned little girl with asthma being forced to walk because she was not eligible to ride the bus due to budget cuts.

Mr. Kelley should really be ashamed of himself for not setting a better example, especially now when there are going to be further cuts to education as Gov. Steve Sisolak and state lawmakers revise the budget in response to the coronavirus.

The school district’s auditors should have done a better job of demanding accountability from Kelley about the types of trips for which he was being reimbursed. Think of all those who make personal sacrifices that we are all so familiar hearing about, like the teachers that spend their own money so the kids they teach can have classroom supplies.

So, it’s time that school district officials lead by example and make sacrifices of some of the privileges they have. Reforming the mileage-reimbursement policy would be a good start, especially since the district has policies regarding reimbursement that are even more restrictive than what applies to the trustees, who are allowed reimbursement for travel to and from home. For example, instructions from the Washoe County School District Music Department for mileage reimbursement states in bold letters “There is no mileage reimbursement for travel to or from your home.”

The Student Activity Funds Procedures Manual states: “Commute mileage – that incurred between your home and main or regular place of work – is not reimbursable. This rule is in effect seven (7) days a week including holidays.”

Scott Kelley

As for Mr. Kelley, who seems to be using his school board tenure as a stepping stone for higher office, one wonders what office he will run for next if he is re-elected and if the events he attends in which he asks the taxpayers to reimburse him for are really education related or in the pursuit of his own political ambition.

Note: The following are a set of questions I asked Trustee Kelley to answer in response for the types of trips he listed on his mileage reimbursement reports. And, while my research of and his citation of WCSD travel policies are valid, this exchange does prove my assertion of his sense of entitlement about his privileges—even at a time when the governor and state lawmakers are considering massive cuts to the budget.  

1. You were the only trustee who submitted reimbursement reports for parades, beauty pageants, sporting events that you listed and none of your other colleagues listed on the reimbursement reports. Please explain how those events relate to school district business. 

Attending the Reno Veterans Day Parade to interact with and observe WCSD’s wonderful JROTC students is a legitimate reimbursement expense. I’m a military veteran and take great pride in our JROTC programs.

Attending pageants that are hosted at WCSD schools to judge participating WCSD elementary and middle school students is a legitimate reimbursement expense. Pageants teach our students self-confidence and self-respect. 

Attending sporting events that are hosted at WCSD schools to meet parents and observe games is a legitimate reimbursement expense. Attending sporting events also gives me a chance to see the condition of various athletic fields and the great work of our custodians.

2. You were the only one that listed your mileage reimbursement reports trips to the school district office to check your mail and turn in your mileage reimbursement reports? How would you respond to criticism that this seems excessive and abusing your privileges?

Who is criticizing? Every trustee is different and you will need to ask others why they did or did not list certain events on their mileage reports. I believe it’s important to be as open and transparent as possible, and listing all of my WCSD activities on public documents is one way I hold myself accountable to the citizens of Washoe County. In addition to checking mail and turning in reimbursement reports during my visits to the School District Office, I usually meet with staff to discuss WCSD business, review Board Packets for the next meeting, and meet visitors in the waiting room. Unfortunately, there is not enough space in the Reimbursement Report field to list all of these additional activities. Suggesting that these visits are excessive and abusive is unfair and wrong.

3. Instructions from the Washoe County School District Music Department for mileage reimbursement states in bold letters, “There is no mileage reimbursement for travel to or from your home.”

WCSD’s Music Department mileage reimbursement is not applicable here. I follow what is acceptable and unacceptable mileage expenses according to NRS 386.290 and NRS 387.319, and WCSD Board Policy 9065.

4. The Student Activity Funds Procedures Manual states: “Commute mileage – that incurred between your home and main or regular place of work – is not reimbursable. This rule is in effect seven (7) days a week including holidays.” Do you think it is fair that policymakers have a different set of rules? Especially when they specifically prohibit mileage reimbursement for travel to/from your home?

WCSD’s Student Activity Funds Procedure Manual is not applicable here. I follow what is acceptable and unacceptable mileage expenses according to NRS 386.290 and NRS 387.319, and WCSD Board Policy 9065. As a policymaker, I follow federal, state, and local laws.  

5. In your first term you listed various City of Reno NAB Meetings on your reports. I know Ward 4 and Ward 5 NAB overlapped with schools your District E area at the time. However, what about the South Reno Ward 2 NAB that you listed which did not have any overlapping schools within your district. 

Trustees make decisions that impact all of Washoe County. I felt it was important to attend multiple Neighborhood Advisory Board meetings and speak to citizens about WCSD decisions, policies, trends, etc.

6. Furthermore, you did not list visiting any NAB meetings in your latest term representing District A. Can you explain why you attended NAB meetings in your first term and not in your second term?

It was personal preference not to attend NAB meetings during my second term.

7. You were a Ward 4 NAB Member during your first term on the school board and listed those meetings on your reimbursement reports. In what capacity were you serving the NAB meetings and how would you respond to criticism that claiming mileage for the school district while serving as an NAB member could be a conflict of interest? 

I may have been a Ward 4 NAB member, but before and after the meeting I would put on my Trustee “hat” and speak to citizens about WCSD decisions, policies, trends, etc. Trustees make decisions that impact all of Washoe County. Suggesting that my meeting citizens at NABs is a conflict of interest is unfair and wrong.

8. You listed an event for former Vice President Joe Biden at Galena High School in January 2012 on your reports. This was an Obama/Biden Campaign event outside of your District E at the time. How was this event appropriate to list as a school district related event?

Attending a speech by the Vice President of the United States at a WCSD high school is a legitimate reimbursement expense. The visit was not a campaign event. Mr. Biden discussed the importance of public education and several Obama Administration initiatives that directly impacted WCSD. 

9. Please respond to criticism that you were attending these above-mentioned events for political reasons rather than school district business as you were a candidate for the upcoming race for the At Large Reno City Council Seat in 2012.

Who is criticizing? Suggesting that I attended legitimate events at WCSD schools in 2012 because I was running for Reno City Council is unfair and wrong. Trustees make decisions that impact all of Washoe County, and meeting citizens at the Reno Veterans Day Parade, pageants and sporting events hosted at WCSD schools, NAB meetings, etc. is important for trustees to do.

10. With all of the budget cuts Gov. Sisolak has asked for by state lawmakers during this Special Session of the Nevada Legislative Session, do you plan further submissions of mileage reimbursement reports and if so will you continue to list the type of events you previously listed in your reimbursement reports?

Yes, I will continue to submit mileage reimbursement reports as I believe it’s important to be as open and transparent as possible. Listing all of my WCSD activities on public documents is one way I hold myself accountable to the citizens of Washoe County.

According to NRS 387.319: “Any travel by trustees of the school district, other than as provided for in NRS 386.290, required for the transaction of official business of the school district shall first be authorized by the board of trustees. When such travel is authorized, trustees of the school district shall receive the travel expenses and per diem allowances provided for state officers and employees generally. All of my reimbursement expenses are authorized and appropriate.

William Puchert

William Puchert is a Reno resident, a former journalist and local progressive.

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