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Another raucous meeting for the Washoe County School Board

By Jeri Chadwell
Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meet at Damonte Ranch High School for their March 30, 2021 meeting. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Tuesday’s Washoe County School Board meeting continued a trend of increasing rhetoric and antics during public comment periods as the board of trustees worked to make decisions concerning policy and legal matters

Big issues included pursuing a lawsuit against Washoe County and approving its controversial board policy concerning political activity in schools.

A resident who submitted public comment during the Washoe County School District’s Board of Trustees meeting march 30, 2021 at Damonte Ranch High School. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Because the meeting began at an earlier time than usual, Board President Angela Taylor allowed for two general public comment periods. Both were filled largely by people critical of things like the district’s recent anti-racist resolution and LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education.

Many commenters came wearing American flag garb. Many refused to wear properly their masks. One woman took off her face shield when she approached the podium. When Taylor said the meeting would go into recess until she put it back on, the woman screamed at her, “You’re not my boss. We’re your boss. And don’t you dare cut my microphone.”She was allowed to continue her comment after putting the face shield back on.

Commenters throughout the two periods called face masks “face diapers,” accused the district of “indoctrinating” instead of educating children and said the district “turns out social justice warriors” who cannot read or write.

Several asked if the district has a strategic plan in place at all and demanded to know where they could find it. It’s easily accessible online through the district’s website.

Some again called for Taylor to be fired or investigated over an alleged racist comment that “being white isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be.” Taylor did make comments to that effect during a previous board meeting but was clear that the only way being white is a bad thing is if a person is espousing white supremacist ideologies.

Reno Attorney Joey Gilbert was among the commenters who came to threaten legal action against the board alleging poor acoustics at recent board meetings, the length of meetings and an instance of Taylor speaking on behalf of the entire board.

Trustee Jeff Church criticized Taylor after she said the board as a whole supported a robocall sent by Superintendent Kristen McNeill following the Jan. 6 Capitol siege in Washington, D.C.

During his public comment, Gilbert told the board he has filed many lawsuits in the last year and said his “favorite part” of a lawsuit is discovery—the formal process of exchanging information between the parties about the witnesses and evidence they’ll present at trial.

“I hope we don’t get to that point,” Gilbert said. “Do what we’re asking you to.”

In addition to an investigation of Taylor and complaints about the acoustics of meeting locations necessitated by COVID-19, Gilbert and the other commenters were demanding things like the implementation of a drug testing program for all Washoe County high school students.

Employee speech policy sent back to committee

The board also discussed final passage of revisions to two of its policies: 1310, governing political activity in schools; and 4500, which covers “employee speech.”

The school district had previously insisted that things like rainbow flags in classrooms were prohibited as “political speech.”

After months of upholding the board policy, the district’s legal counsel, Neil Rombardo, finally concluded that teachers can have displays in support of students’ civil rights in their classrooms and may also have discussions about things like Black Lives Matter. He said there is nothing in the policy that actually prohibits such activities, but rather that the policy is intended to stop active political campaigning on school property.

Statements made at the district’s Feb. 9 board of trustees meeting, while discussing an anti-racism resolution and “brave spaces,” foreshadowed this decision.

Board policy 4500 covers the free speech rights of district employees. Proposed revisions have raised concerns that the school board is attempting to curtail employees’ rights to free speech. Language in the proposed revisions concerning “district speech”—speech on issues concerning civil rights and social justice that would be sanctioned as appropriate by the board—also raised concerns.

Trustee Jeff Church, middle, said the current draft of board policy 4500 raised concerns that the district would be out of line in curtailing speech and that “district speech” seemed to him a slippery slope. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Many people showed up to Tuesday’s meeting to provide public comment in favor of adoption of revisions to both policies. Commenters identifying themselves as current Washoe County students began their comments with “content warnings,” telling the board they’d be referencing teen suicide.

They told the board that allowing teachers to display placards and posters in support of civil rights and to discuss issues like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ issues would make more students feel welcome and reduce the risk of children who identify with groups feeling isolated and possibly hurting themselves.

While all but a few public commenters expressed support for both policy 1310 and 4500, a few raised concerns about the latter’s potential stifling of employees’ free speech rights. In the end, board policy 4500 was not approved after Trustee Church raised concerns that the district would be out of line in curtailing speech and that “district speech” seemed to him a slippery slope.

A part of the revisions to 4500 would have included that employees may speak as private citizens on issues related to public concern. However, “specific issues, concerns, or grievances regarding District employees’ work are not considered matters of public concern,” according to the policy. The changes would have prevented district employees from in the future speaking to the media on many of the issues they have throughout the last year.

Rombardo cited a case and said, “What happened was an employee said, ‘I was disciplined inappropriately,’ went to the media and discussed this private issue. That’s not a public concern, and you don’t get to do that. That’s a violation of policy, and that’s always been in there. We were recently asked about it.”

After hearing from Rombardo and discussing the proposed policy revisions, Church made a motion to send policy 4500 back to the Board Policy Committee for further review. His motion passed with support from Taylor and trustees Andrew Caudill, Ellen Minetto and Jacqueline Calvert.

School district to fight county on Incline Village settlement

The board also voted unanimously to move forward with legal action to fight a Washoe County Commission decision to hold the school district responsible for repaying a large portion of a multi-million-dollar settlement with Incline Village property owners.

Washoe County overtaxed homeowners in Incline Village starting 17 years ago and is now responsible to pay a $57 million settlement ordered by the court. In February, the county commission voted to hold the school district responsible for $20 million of that.

The county’s unanimous decision last month would require the school district to pay $10 million in taxes and another $10 million in interest and legal fees.

“They don’t have the legal authority to do it,” Rombardo said of the county’s decision.

County commissioners, upon approving the settlement, said their vote was mandated by court decisions.

Commissioner Vaughn Hartung said a previous county assessor’s decision — made with good intention — ultimately led to the protracted litigation.

“I don’t see that it was malicious in any way, shape or form at the time, even though it was an error,” he said. “I’m sorry. This was not a failing of the county commission. The courts made a decision, and we are now mandated to fulfill that obligation.”

Trustee Caudill rebuked the commission, saying, “They should be ashamed of themselves. I hope the public takes notes of every county commissioner that did that [and] what they are intending to do to our students.”

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