A petition was started Monday on change.org asking for the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees to immediately call for the resignation of Trustee Jeff Church. It had 139 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
Church was elected in 2020 to represent District A, formerly represented by Scott Kelley. Kelley resigned from the school board in August of 2020 following This Is Reno’s reporting on his harassing online behavior toward constituents and allegations of abuse made by his ex-wife during their divorce proceedings. He remained on the ballot for the general election, but lost to Church.
Church calls himself “Watchdog Jeff” but has been criticized for his perceived lack of understanding of the school district’s finances and his expression of views that many consider racist and homophobic.
The petition cites “his deliberate spread of disinformation and lies regarding WCSD and educational funding with the goal to instigate anger and aggression from his followers” and his “racist, homophobic, and transphobic commentary directly at odds with WCSD values regarding diversity” as among the reasons he should resign. It also notes that Church has threatened to sue the school board even as he sits as a member on it.
The petition reads in part, “Jeff Church runs two websites, ‘Watch Dog Jeff’ and ‘Reno Tax Revolt,’ that he uses as platforms to spread dangerous lies and disinformation about our schools and to accuse the WCSD Board of bogus allegations of meeting violations.”
Recently, a newsletter written by Church entitled “The ABCs of Saving Our Schools” was sent to people subscribed to his website and then circulated among the public. Creators of the petition say the “letter contains extremely concerning language and overt falsehoods that should not be tolerated by one holding a seat on our Board of Trustees serving our diverse student body and staff.”
In the letter, Church accuses the district of imposing “martial law” and says it has its “knee on the neck of Free Speech.”
Church also accuses the district of promoting “anti-religious indoctrination, gender identity, mandatory racist indoctrination while our schools fail.”
This commentary is an attack on the recently approved anti-racism policy adopted by the WCSD.
“Rather than celebrate this groundbreaking policy in bridging divides and promoting inclusion and acknowledgement of the diversity in our schools, Trustee Church is spreading the lie that this policy enforces the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ in our schools,” the petition reads.
The falsehood that WCSD is teaching critical race theory has been spread so widely that it has become a common refrain of public commenters who, over the last few months, have showed up to school board meetings in greater and greater numbers and become increasingly disruptive to the point that the board has temporarily begun holding meetings over Zoom again.
Superintendent Kristen McNeill has addressed the falsehood on several occasions recently, including during an April 16 media briefing and in an April 19 email sent to school district staff.
Church’s recent letter also includes commentary concerning gender identity that suggests transgender students pose a threat to other students.
“Current WCSD Policy: (Without Parental notification): Simply ‘identify’ as female and use female restrooms and locker rooms (full nudity), sleep with females on fieldtrips, compete in female sports (contact sports too- injuries certain), apply for female colleges & scholarships,” Church’s letter reads.
The petition says this “is hate speech that demonizes a protected class of students and promotes violence against some of our most vulnerable children within our schools—students who are most often the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. In addition, given the executive order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation signed into law by our current president, our public school district has the duty to uphold these policies and take steps to acknowledge ALL members of our diverse staff and student bodies while protecting them from discrimination and harmful subjugation.”
“They can do whatever they want, but I think it’s shortsighted.”
Church has repeatedly accused the school board of “muzzling” or “gagging” him, which has become another refrain among public commenters. Among his evidence of this muzzle is the removal of board reports as a regular agenda item for board meetings. Board reports from trustees typically occur at the end of meetings and include updates on things like which schools a trustee has visited.
The board leadership team removed board reports from meetings for the sake of saving time and allowing for higher priority agenda items to be the focus. However, trustees can still share board reports to Board President Angie Taylor though email.
Church has also claimed that media has been denied access to school board meetings and weekly media briefings. A man named Bruce Parks was, in fact, removed from a recent media briefing. Parks ostensibly runs an online newsletter. However, he also has regularly appeared at board meetings to give public comment, something media members do not generally do.
Church responds to petition allegations
This Is Reno caught up with Church to ask about the petition calling for his resignation and the accusations concerning his behavior contained therein.
“I had heard from somebody that there was going to be a recall effort,” Church said. “And, you know, that’s democracy. They can do whatever they want, but I think it’s shortsighted. I think it’s going to fail miserably. Recalls or that kind of thing are reserved for criminal activity, people that are mentally ill—you know, outrageous kinds of things, not because you disagree with their position.”
With regard to the board reports, Church said he has asked Taylor to restore them but has been denied.
“By the way, they kept superintendent board reports and the student trustee, who’s not elected,” Church said. “She gets to talk, but I don’t. I’m sorry, but that’s gagging, that’s muzzling me. And I think anybody in their right mind realizes that’s intended for me.”
Church also confirmed that taking legal action against the district and the board has been among his considerations, though he denied that this threat is in any way related to Reno attorney Joey Gilbert’s threat to sue the school board for myriad issues ranging from allegations of open meeting law violations to poor acoustics at recent meetings to the length of meetings—which have sometimes stretched into the early morning hours.
(Church said he’s told Taylor that, in the future, he will leave board meetings no later than midnight.)
Those allegations were included in a change.org petition as well, which gathered 402 signatures and was delivered to the March 30 board of trustees meeting.
“That doesn’t make you a bad person, that you use the tools that are given to us by this great democracy. … What I was referring to in one of my statements was, yes, I may be calling on the public to help me with my attorney fees if I have to bring litigation over free speech, over what we just talked about,” Church said.
Church also said McNeill has refused to meet with him but still meets with other trustees.
Asked about this, the district’s public information officers responded that it is true, saying:
“Unfortunately, Trustee Church has made disparaging allegations about Superintendent McNeill, from a personal and professional standpoint. As a result, Dr. McNeill has elected in the best interest of herself and as the CEO of the District, to not meet with him at this time. She does, however, continue to correspond with him via email and in a timely manner to ensure she provides the same information that the other board members receive or request. Additionally, Dr. McNeill schedules time on her calendar to respond to his questions or concerns so that he is able to fulfill the duties of his position as a Trustee.
“Though the superintendent does have the right to not meet face-to-face with a trustee, Dr. McNeill did receive support from the Board President, Board Vice President, and Board Clerk on her decision.”
He also denies allegations of racist, homophobic and transphobic behavior. While district officials have repeatedly refuted the claim that children are being taught critical race theory, Church said he’s heard from parents concerned that it is being taught.
“But the devil is in the details of what they’re teaching. … I do think a lot of what I’m seeing—I mean in writing, what I’m seeing—doesn’t represent true Washoe County values. That’s part of my free speech is to disagree with at least what’s proposed if not in progress,” Church said.
Regarding issues of the district’s policies surrounding sexuality and gender identity, Church denied allegations of bias.
“I strongly support LGBT rights. I just don’t support the gender identity—going into the bathrooms and playing on female sports teams,” he said, contending that current district policy allows for students to share bathrooms and locker rooms and compete on sports teams based on the gender with which they identify.
School board president, trustees weigh in
Superintendent McNeill and Board President Angie Taylor were joined by trustees Diane Nicolet and Kurt Thigpen during their weekly media briefing on Friday and addressed the petition calling for Church’s resignation as well as some of his allegations—including that he’s being silenced.
“No members of the board of trustees are being gagged. All members, all members on the board of trustees have the exact same opportunity to comment, to discuss any of the agenda items that we currently have,” Taylor said, noting also that two trustees must agree to ask for it in order to add an item to the agenda.
“It’s not being applied towards a particular trustee. It isn’t being applied because of a particular trustee. It’s a longstanding policy,” she said.
Thigpen said he, too, is aware of the petition and that it has given him pause.
“We’re here for our students. We’re elected to take care of our students, and I have seen the letter and the petition,” he said. “I would say if the letter is true, as Dr. Taylor said, it is very concerning—especially the perceived attack on our transgender students.”
Nicolet expressed her hope that issues between Church and the rest of the board might be resolved before coming to a head.
“I want to stay away from what I’m really thinking right now because it’s still very in the infant stage right now, for me,” she said. “I’m still trying to make sense of the direction we could go. We do have good, balanced governance policies. I’m committed to following those, making sense of those, working together as a team. And when I get up in the morning, I don’t want to give up on anyone. All seven trustees are voted into their position. It’s an honor, a privilege and a huge responsibility.”
Seeking a resolution is something for which Church has also expressed an interest.
“I’m willing to sit down with trustees, with the superintendent, with the other groups—the group that wants to impeach me, so to speak—and I’d like to have a mediator there, a professional mediator or someone we agree upon to help guide the conversation,” he said. “Angie Taylor declined. Mr. [Vice President Andrew] Caudill didn’t respond, so I assume he declined.”