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Home > Featured > School board discusses vacant seat, COVID Threat Meter and settlement with former superintendent

School board discusses vacant seat, COVID Threat Meter and settlement with former superintendent

By Jeri Davis
Washoe Schools superintendent Kristen McNeill addresses athletes and coaches outside a Board of Trustees meeting.

Two more confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported to the media at 7:30 p.m. last night while the Washoe County School Board of Trustees was three and a half hours into another long meeting. One case was reported at Libby Booth Elementary School, the other at McQueen High School.

A half an hour before the announcement, the board had finished listening to several hours of public comment—mostly from teachers wishing to express their concerns, but also from student athletes eager to play before the spring and other students petitioning the board to incorporate anti-racist teachings into its curricula. Several dozen people also submitted public comments via email.

Sparks High School English teacher MJ Ubando, who has voiced her concerns on other occasions, was among the educators who gave public comment.

Ubando said to trustees, “I wasn’t planning on speaking today because board meetings have become a maddening case of dangerous déjà vu. These past few months have turned me into a cynic, and I fully expect that nothing that I or anyone else will say here will compel you to act any differently…Although I am speaking to you, I am speaking for everyone but you. 

“I am speaking today because you are in my neighborhood, a neighborhood which has one of the highest [number of ] reported cases in the county. You are at my school, a school where in the past five years I have met some amazing educators who will continue to run themselves ragged for our students in spite of the impossible circumstances you have placed us in…As I speak, I know of positive COVID cases in several schools that have yet to be announced to the public. I know of air conditioning systems that have not worked for years and still are not fixed.”

She said she knew that teachers have been told to keep quiet about their concerns in order to avoid making the situation more difficult for their colleagues.

“Regardless of your propaganda, we are not OK—and teachers are discouraged and drowning,” Ubando said. “I’m speaking to the people who I hope will replace you, to the future board members and superintendents who are in this room or watching from another one. I hope to remind them that true transparency is not just celebrating progress but admitting mistakes—and doing the work to repair the harm mistakes have made.”

Student athletes protest outside, comment inside

Outside of Sparks High School, a group of parents and student athletes had gathered to protest the suspension of sports until the spring semester. Many carried signs reading “Let them play.”

Early in the meeting, a recess was called for–which Superintendent Kristen McNeill used to go outside of the building and address the protesters, one of whom asked her who was taking responsibility for the decision to suspend sport until the spring. McNeill explained that the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) Governance board provided a recommendation to the Nevada Association of School Superintendents (NASS) regarding the cancellation and postponement of school sports programs. NASS supported those recommendations to move high school sports to 2021.

Several pro-sports protesters also provided public comment. Among them was Parker Luthy, a football player and senior at Spanish Springs High School. 

“I’m here today to encourage you…and to just encourage you to allow football in the fall, for many reasons,” Luthy said. “One of those reasons: This summer, during our summer weights program, the Spanish Springs High School varsity football team—along with the Damonte [Ranch] and Reed football teams—all practiced, and none of us came down with any COVID. It was all COVID-free. Also, there are 35 states in the country that are currently playing every Friday night, while student athletes in Nevada, California, Oregon and many other states are being robbed of their childhood dream of having a senior year for football.”

He said that for many high school senior athletes football is the planned route to pay for college. He also said the shortened season that’s been planned would make colleges disinterested in students from Nevada, as they’ll be unable to adequately review their performances.

“I’m here asking you to help us athletes to get us to college,” Luthy said. 

Positive comments emerged

Prior to taking public comment, the board heard presentations from students and principals from various schools, who spoke positively about returning to school and in-person classes. 

Among those who spoke during the presentation was Dustin Beil, principal of Turning Point/PASS, who was joined by a student named Lars. It was explained to trustees that Turning Point/PASS is a special education program. Beil said Lars has been doing well in the program and was pleased to be back to in-person learning.

“Not only do we focus on academics, we also focus on social skill acquisition…So Lars has been doing a fantastic job, last year and this year,” Beil said. “He has recently had 40 excellent days in a row, meaning his behavior has been perfect for 40 days.”

Beil said Lars’ integration back into the general education population will soon be discussed.

At the end of his speech, Lars said to trustees, “I thank you and all of the teachers for their courage to be in class.”

Local activist and development director and co-founder of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Bob Fulkerson called the presentation a Potemkin Village on Twitter — that is, a fabricated facade designed to distract from the serious nature of COVID-19’s spread. 

Trustees hear from Reno mayor’s COVID Task Force

Trustees next heard from members of Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve’s COVID Task Force, which last week launched its new Truckee Meadows COVID Threat Meter. The health professionals on the team explained the color-coded risk measurement system to trustees, who may use the underlying information upon which it’s based in making their decisions concerning school closures.

However, it was made clear by Schieve and reiterated by trustees during the meeting that the threat meter shall not be used as a sole source of information for making school closure decisions.

Following the presentation, Trustee Katy Simon Holland told members of the task force that the school board “didn’t know at the beginning of this process” that the mayor and task force didn’t want the threat meter “to be used to help make these decisions.”

“We’ve been struggling with this for several weeks and were excited to hear there was this effort,” she said. At the same time, she said, they were working on determining what the school district’s own metrics would be. Simon Holland said she wanted to make it clear that they were never asking for the task force to make decisions that are the board’s to make. She also reiterated that the board hasn’t adopted metrics, saying it was a common misunderstanding among the public and media outlets over the last few weeks.

Several other trustees followed suit with Simon Holland in reiterating that it was not the board’s intention to have the mayor’s COVID Task Force make school-related decisions. Trustee Jacqueline Calvert asked how the information it gathers will be disseminated in the community.

Jeremy Smith, interim executive director of the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency, explained that the task force is working on a branding campaign for the risk meter, as well as a social media rollout. The task force is also working on a Spanish translation for the risk meter.

Image: Eric Marks

Three more public commenters spoke following the task force presentation.

Malia Puchta, a parent of WCSD students, said, “You guys have taken up the discussion of what metrics you’re going to use several times…You should have had something in place so you knew when you’re going to call for the schools to be closed…You’re not in an enviable position at all…Everybody’s going to find fault, but you guys have got to do something. You have to make a decision.”

McNeill spoke following public comment, saying under current conditions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like there are three school districts rather than one. 

“We have a hybrid district, we have an in-person district and we have a distance learning district,” she said, adding that she thinks the coming weeks will reveal more about the spread of virus in the school district. “We just got out of a three-day weekend, and I think it’s going to be really important to see over the next few weeks what our test positivity rate is going to be and how many new cases we’re going to see.”

School Board President Malena Raymond said it’s only natural that people’s perspectives on school closures and best strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19 would change over time.

 “We’re learning new things about this virus every day,” she said, adding that she can’t remember ever seeing so much scientific discovery happening on a daily basis.”We knew early on that, I think, this was going to be the hardest decision we’d ever have to make—reopening schools. There isn’t, for me, a line in the sand, that we hit a number or threshold and we shut down the entire district.”

Instead, Raymond said closure decisions should be made on a school-by-school basis, rather than having a district-wide policy.

“I know that it’s my decision, and I know that either way I’ll be making people angry—or happy,” she added.

In the end, trustees agreed to have a standing agenda item for future meetings to discuss the status of the community and the spread of COVID-19 within it. Metrics for district-wide closing may or may not be taken up again.

Trustees agree to settle with former superintendent Traci Davis

Trustees heard from Rob Dotson, who is the district’s outside legal counsel for the lawsuit brought against it by former Superintendent Traci Davis. Davis was booted from her position by trustees back in July 2019.

Former Washoe Schools Superintendent Traci Davis. Image: Ty O’Neil.

Dotson explained that Simon Holland was dropped as a defendant in the case and that a charge of breach of open meeting laws was also dismissed. However, because other elements of the case cannot be dismissed, he recommended that the board agree to settle with Davis rather than letting the matter make it to trial—which would begin sometime next month.  

The arrived-upon settlement agreement between legal counsel representing the district and Davis is that the district would pay up to $70,000 in Public Employees’ Retirement System of Nevada benefits to Davis. Dotson said by making the payment directly to PERS, the district should hopefully avoid tax consequences.

Also as a part of the settlement agreement, both Davis and the district will agree not to speak ill of one another. Each party would have to pay their own legal fees. And the case would be dismissed with prejudice, but the school district would not have to admit wrongdoing.

Not agreeing to the settlement could lead to additional costs for the district, which Dotson estimated could be well over $100,000 prior to the first day of a trial. He said depositions in the case would be many, including ones done at his behest, and advised trustees to agree to the settlement as a means to rid the district of the “distraction.”

Trustee Ellen Minetto said it’s the responsible thing to do. Trustee Simon Holland said some will be angered by the decision, but agreed. Trustee Caudill was the only trustee who would not vote in favor of the settlement.

“She did a treasonous act against the district and betrayed the people she was elected to protect,” he said. “I just can’t get behind it. It’s a hard decision, but that’s where I landed after thinking about this for the last few weeks.”

The agreement was approved in a vote of 5-1, with Caudill voting against it.

Vacant board seat to be filled at next meeting

Toward the end of the evening, the board discussed its need to fill the District A board seat left empty by former Trustee Scott Kelley’s resignation. The board agreed to appoint a new trustee to the seat during its Sept. 22 meeting. WCSD Chief General Counsel Neil Rombardo informed trustees that he’d already begun the public notification process by publishing the notification in the newspaper. Applicants to fill the District A seat will need to submit resumes and letters of intent by Sept. 15.

WCSD Trustee Scott Kelley.
Former WCSD Trustee Scott Kelley resigned from the board in August 2020.

Rombardo noted that Nevada law only requires a potential interim trustee to be 18 or older and live in the district they’ll be representing. District A includes south Reno and Incline Village. He said he didn’t see a need for the trustees to further outline qualifications.

Simon Holland said she thought it was important for the board to discuss things that might disqualify a candidate.

“When I applied as an applicant to be appointed, the trustees did not tell applicants that they were not going to appoint someone who was running for office—and so those of us who would not have applied wasted a bunch of time putting together an application and a resume,” she said. “And, personally, I feel we should not appoint someone who’s running for office, because I feel we ought to let the voters decide that.”

Simon Holland also noted that current WCSD employees have, in the past, been barred from serving on the board and asked if current employees might be eligible for a leave of absence to fill the remaining term for the vacant District A seat, which expires in January. Rombardo said that would be a conflict of interest for them.

Simon Holland, Taylor and Raymond expressed their belief that current candidates running for school board should also not be considered, but Rombardo said—unlike with current employees—he could not think of a legal justification for barring current candidates from applying for the appointment.

In the end, trustees agreed to come with a list of up to five candidates ranked by their preference to fill the vacant seat. The top three ranked candidates will be interviewed during the board meeting before one is appointed.

At the very end of the meeting, Simon Holland spoke up to note that she felt several concerns brought up by teachers during public comment—from workload to technology concerns—needed to be further addressed.

“I think we were all very moved by some of the concerns reported by teachers today,” Simon Holland said. “And I know Superintendent McNeill is putting together an after-action report, and I would just like to make sure that that report covers what we’re doing to cover some of the teachers’ concerns…I just want to make sure they know on the public record how much we care about that.”

Correction: The NIAA Governance Board merely provided the recommendation to postpone fall sports. It was the Nevada Association of School Superintendents that supported that recommendation.

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