Home > Featured > COVID-19 > School board appoints temporary trustee, discusses COVID-19 and budget shortfall

School board appoints temporary trustee, discusses COVID-19 and budget shortfall

By Jeri Chadwell
Published: Last Updated on

The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees waited until late into its Sept. 22 meeting to appoint a trustee to temporarily fill the seat left empty by the resignation of Scott Kelley in August.

Instead, the board first heard from Nevada COVID-19 task force director Caleb Cage and Julia Peek, deputy administrator of Community Health Services for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, prior to taking public comment from a long list of people.

Cage and Peek gave a presentation to the board detailing the state’s response to COVID-19 and trends in transmission of the disease since March, highlighting how the response has gone from broad measures to more targeted efforts.

The presentation was a continuation of a discussion on July 28 for the development of a threshold that would determine when the district would move from in-person/hybrid learning to full distance learning based on the status of the COVID-19 outbreak in Washoe County. 

Since then, the board has heard from other officials as well, including those involved in the creation of the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency COVID Threat Meter. 

However, the board has declined to establish its own thresholds that would trigger a district-wide closure, with members repeatedly saying they prefer not to “draw a line in the sand.”

Julia Peek
Julia Peek. Image: Jeramie Lu Photography

Following the presentation, trustees asked questions of Cage and Peek. Board Vice President Angie Taylor asked how the district might play a role in helping with contact tracing and if there is anything it’s not been doing that it should.

Peek responded that, as she’d previously mentioned, the task force designed its contact tracing efforts based on WCSD’s own efforts developed in years past to track absenteeism, adding, “we’re all at a point of COVID fatigue, but just need to stay the course and continue to test.”

She added that adults need to talk with children about screening and quarantining to assuage their fears but also explain to them that COVID-19, like the flu or measles, will remain as a part of “our new normal.”

Trustee Katy Simon Holland asked if Cage or Peek would comment on the likelihood of athletics being allowed to resume. Cage responded, referencing the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association’s decision to push sports to the spring—a decision he said was “a difficult and commendable decision.” Cage said he did not have any information that would indicate a change to that decision may be coming.

Board President Malena Raymond asked if they thought it likely the state might at some point need to return to shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, causing the school district to close again.

“The ‘no crystal ball’ is a challenge here, of course,” Cage said. “Given the number of conditions that could arise between now and sometime in the unforeseeable future, I think those are the sorts of decisions that would be made off the data” the state and local government agencies are collecting.”

Commenters accuse district of silencing support for Blacks, LGBTQ+

Despite starting its meeting an hour earlier than usual, the board held its public comment period until 4 p.m. in order to allow teachers and others whose schedules revolve around the school day to participate. 

Two hours of public comment were heard on topics ranging from school counselor caseloads to the district’s treatment of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many commenters spoke about school funding and their desire to see school administrators and trustees join them in lobbying for more funding ahead of the next state legislative session in February.

Local activist and development director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Bob Fulkerson, who often speaks at school board meetings, told trustees that he was indoctrinated into thinking this country was based on the ideal of all people being equal. He said he was taught about George Washington and the cherry tree but not that Washington was an enslaver of Black people.

Fulkerson then unfurled a rainbow flag and asked board members why it wasn’t flown, saying that he’d seen an anti-LGBTQ slur scrawled near the control booth in the theater at McQueen High School where the board was meeting.

“By criminalizing the rainbow flag and by criminalizing the Black Lives Matter, you’re telling Black and LGBT kids that their lives are less important than the comfort of straight, CIS, white people here in the district,” Fulkerson said. “Banning the flag and these discussions is counter to Democracy—and it’s anti-education. 

“So, in closing, your handling of these issues is eerily similar to the way you’ve handled the COVID-19 crisis and the reopening. It’s basically, ‘Trust us. A resolution is on the way.’ But you’re making it up as you go along.”

Superintendent Kristen McNeill responded to Fulkerson’s comments, saying, “For clarity, and for the public, the policy that has been referenced in your statement…is not new, and it has been in place for some time.”

That policy, which prohibits support by employees for LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter while working, was recently the focus of an article in Buzzfeed, which highlighted how one teacher, Jennifer Leja, was told she could no longer have a rainbow colored flag in her classroom, something she’s always displayed in her classroom.

“There has never been any words from this superintendent or this board as far as criminalization of Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+,” McNeill said. 

What the district said, however, is that expressing support for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ while at work constitutes prohibited political activity. Trustee Andrew Caudill was quoted by Buzzfeed saying as much.

“The courts have held LGBTQ+ issues to be political speech and thus, the rainbow flag [is considered] to be political speech, so it cannot be expressed through clothing and other means, such as displaying a flag in your class,” Caudill told Leja.

Candidate demands response for Kelley’s social media activities

Trustees also heard public comment from Jeff Church—the candidate for District A who is running against Scott Kelley, who has said he will seek reelection to the board despite his resignation last month in the wake of reporting by This Is Reno. 

A Facebook account that previously claimed to be a Washoe County School District substitute teacher regularly criticized news media coverage of the school district. Court documents show Board Trustee Scott Kelley's attorney said he uses the account for online shopping. The account was deleted from Facebook two days after This Is Reno asked Kelley about it.
A Facebook account that previously claimed to be a Washoe County School District substitute teacher regularly criticized news media coverage of the school district. Court documents show Board Trustee Scott Kelley’s attorney said he uses the account for online shopping. The account was deleted from Facebook two days after This Is Reno asked Kelley about it.

Reports showed Kelley’s attorney admitting to his use of sockpuppet social media accounts, allegedly for online shopping. But those accounts were also used to denigrate school district critics, Kelley’s critics and those criticizing on social media the Nevada Department of Corrections, where Kelley works as a public information officer.

Church also applied to be appointed to temporarily fill the District A seat, but trustees declined to interview him for the position.

“I’m here to discuss something that’s not on the agenda,” Church said. “I’d like to discuss ‘Kelleygate.’”

Church asked the trustees if they or others in the district were aware that Kelley had created fake social media accounts before the news of this was broken by This Is Reno and called for an investigation into it. He explained how he believes that one of the fake accounts was designed to steal his identity.

“One of those reported accounts was David Jeffrey,” Church said. “I am Jeffery David Church…The email associated was ‘DJeff1199,’ and ‘1199’ is the police code for ‘officer needs help.’ I am retired from the Reno Police Department. In essence, it appears my identity was stolen and misused, and WCSD refuses to investigate.”

Church also noted that one of Kelley’s accounts claiming to be a retired Airforce Colonel had posted threatening to “shove a Corvette” up another person’s rear end. Church noted that he’s a retired Airforce Lieutenant Colonel.

New, temporary trustee appointed

Prior to interviewing candidates to temporarily fill the District A seat, Raymond spoke about considerations she’d made in narrowing down her list of preferred candidates out of the 13 who’d applied—saying she was concerned about who would be the “right fit for this current body.” 

She said she’d considered that a current parent of a WCSD student would be a great pick but also thought whoever was chosen would need to be able to grasp the workings of the school district quickly, considering the short length of the term.

The trustees each named their top three to five candidates, and the pool was narrowed from 13 to a total of four to be interviewed. The finalists were Lisa Genasci, Jack Heineman — both candidates in the primary for the same seat — Sharon Kennedy and Heather Parkyn.

Each of the four received an interview without the others present and was asked the same three questions. These included a question about the roles of the school board trustees and the superintendent and what the ideal relationship between these people should be; how the appointee would contribute to the board during his or her short tenure, including one specific goal; and what the candidate saw as the biggest challenges the district faces, aside from the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The first to answer questions was Genasci—chief grants officer for Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada—who said she threw her hat into the ring because she is passionate about District A and about securing federal funding for schools. In answering the question concerning the roles of trustees in relation to the superintendent, she focused on the importance of collaboration and praised superintendent McNeill as both a good parent and a good taxpayer.

Trustee Andrew Caudill asked the second question concerning what Genasci hoped to achieve if appointed, to which she replied that she would want to prepare the seat for whomever will take it over following the election.

In response to the third and final question concerning the candidates’ perceptions of the biggest threats to the district aside from COVID-19, Genasci circled back to the pandemic and said she believes the “biggest issue is how we meet the needs of kids who come to us for safety and security.”

Jack Heinemann, a 19-year-old University of Nevada, Reno, student and graduate of Damonte Ranch High School, was interviewed next.

Heinemann said he thought the roles of trustees were to guide the community through understanding budgetary items and also to guide the superintendent’s decision making.

“When it comes to a relationship, I don’t think we’re going to be BFF’s until the end,” Heinemann said regarding the short period of time for which the appointee will be serving, but added that he believes it’s a long enough term to allow the board to work toward providing stable governance.  

As to goals he would set and achieve during such a short term, Heinemann said, “To say that I would accomplish one thing would be a little premature,” but reiterated that he believed it could benefit the board to have a recent high school graduate among its members.

Heinemann said outside of the immediate threat of COVID-19, he believes the district’s biggest challenge is planning for how it will address the aftereffects of the pandemic—including families not sending students to school and inequities that arise as a result of lost learning time for students who may not all get the same benefit from distance learning for various reasons.

WCSD Trustee Sharon Kennedy. Image: WCSD

Kennedy—who retired from her position as a WCSD principal on July 1—said she shocked herself and husband when she said, “I think I’m going to apply.” She also made it clear that she had no interest in running for a full term on the board but believed that also having been a nurse for 25 years in addition to her time as a principal put her in a unique position to fill the seat.

“RBG said if you want to be a true professional you’ll do something a little bit outside of yourself,” Kennedy said, referencing the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Asked about the roles of trustees, Kennedy proved her knowledge by more or less quoting from their official duties and adding that the relationship between trustees and the superintendent should be a collaborative one.

She said she hoped in her short term, if appointed, she would be able to represent all 15 schools in District A.

As to her perception of the biggest challenges facing the district, Kennedy said, “Money…finances, funding, the ‘f words.’” 

She said she understands that funding is not something the district controls but also repeated a concern many teachers have shared during public comment periods at past board meetings, saying, “How many times can we try to make something out of nothing? Rabbit out of hat?”

Parkyn, who is focusing her current doctoral work on distance learning, and who vied for the District A seat in 2016, said she believes communication is an important duty for trustees—not just with the superintendent, but with parents and students as well.

She said she believes “the only way to make these three months effective is to take the concerns of students and teachers and address them,” adding “a lot can be done in three months.”

Parkyn said she believes the biggest concern facing the district aside from COVID-19 is the budget shortfall that has and will result from it.

“It’s hard to make schools work without money,” she said, saying that the district needs to work to build a community support system that seeks input from parents and other community members.

After interviewing the four candidates, the board of trustees unanimously selected Kennedy to temporarily fill the seat.

“This is a hard one, because I think no matter which way we go District A would be in good hands,” said Trustee Caudill.

$12.6 million budget shortfall addressed

Trustees heard a presentation concerning the district’s budget and plans made by its financial officers and budget director to make up for a $12.6 million shortfall in its distributive school account resulting from lower enrollment numbers in the district.

The board approved the proposed changes, and they will be incorporated in the statutorily required budget adjustment process in December. These solutions include reducing the district’s OPEB contribution to zero for the time being. OPEB stands for “other post-employment benefits” and refers to the benefits, other than pensions, that employees receive as a part of their package of retirement benefits.

The budget plan also includes the use of CARES Act and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERS) monies as well the cutting of 19 teacher allocations.

According to the budget report presented to trustees, “The net impact of the solutions will allow the District to maintain our current educational models at all grade levels, offset the overall financial impact, while limiting the overall staff reduction to 19 FTE and thus not requiring any layoff of employees. If approved, the above budget solutions will minimize the impact at each school so that we can achieve the goal of educating our students to the best of our ability during these challenging times.”

The trustees approved the plan unanimously.

Never miss a story

Get independent Reno news headlines in your inbox five days a week.

Email field is required to subscribe.