Washoe County School District board meetings recently have been contentious. Yesterday’s regular meeting was less so, aside from one agenda item early in the trustees’ meeting.
Trustee Jeff Church voted against a motion that affirmed trustee commitments to follow board rules.
Board President Angie Taylor discussed an agenda item through which she reminded “the trustees of their pledge to follow board governance, board policies, and board protocols” and asked the trustees to take a roll call vote pledging to “honor that commitment.”
Church requested prior to the meeting that he be given 12 to 15 minutes to address the board. He was only permitted five minutes.
Taylor said she asked the district’s legal counsel about what length of time for him to speak was acceptable, but Church complained he’d learned only minutes before the board meeting that it would be so brief.
Taylor said the short notice was given because she’d been busy visiting schools.
“OK, well, let’s start the clock,” Church said. “Number one, I want to protest in the strongest possible words the limitation. There’s no policy that limits us. This is an important issue. I think many of us know that I was noticed by the board president and the board vice president that I was violating policy, and that they were putting this on the agenda specifically to address this on the road to further censure or discipline.”
Church’s so-far short tenure on the board has raised the hackles of other board members and community members, including a teacher-led petition asking him to resign.
Church said that he’d asked and been told that he’d not violated any Nevada laws, ethics codes or decorum standards during board meetings and had been told no. He said he is open to mediation and finding a resolution. He asked that the agenda item not be approved.
Church also addressed the potential that he might bring litigation against the district.
“I want to remind you this is not the first time anybody has sued or threatened to sue or brought litigation against an employer, and I have not done that at this point,” Church said.
He also questioned the constitutionality of some board actions.
“I believe that there are constitutional questions that the board is taking regarding cutting off the meetings to active comment via Zoom or otherwise, and removing long-standing agenda items such as board reports and requests for future agenda items with no board vote—and holding press briefing, and I want to quote, ‘The WCSD media briefings are by invitation only,’” Church said. “That’s a press conference. Holy smoke, are we a private golf club or are we a government agency open to transparency?’”
Taylor responded that she felt the “majority” if “not all” of what Church said was a continuation of misinformation and said the agenda item was not a censure or “even a sanction.”
“This agenda item is a reminder to all of us as trustees of the oath that we took to adhere to governance policies, practices and protocols,” she said. “That is the extent of this agenda, and to intimate that it’s anything other than that is a misrepresentation again, a lot of which is being propagated around our community.”
Board Vice President Andrew Caudill said he felt that Church’s attempt “to help litigation and further litigation against the school district, to help raise money to litigate against the school district for things that are not accurate” was troubling to him.
“As trustees, we don’t work for the school district. We oversee the school district and are stewards of the school district,” Caudill said. “We actually work for the people. So, by assisting in litigation against the district, we are litigating against the public—against the people who pay the taxes because ultimately they’ll have to pay for it.
“The kids ultimately pay for it. The staff ultimately pays for it. If any citizen in the community wants to take a look at litigation against the school district, that is their right. But as trustees to work in tangent with that is troubling for me,” he added.
After the discussion, the board voted on the agenda item. It was approved 6-1, with Church as the only trustee to vote against upholding board policies.
Church Told This Is Reno that Taylor and Caudill had declined mediation with him during an interview to discuss a petition calling for his resignation.
According to Taylor, that was not the case.
“I actually agreed to mediation, as I’m willing to do what I can in the best interests of the board and the district,” she said. “However, when I learned of Trustee Church’s letter in which he clearly aligns with and encourages others to support the Joey Gilbert letter, at that point and per legal advice I withdrew my support for mediation—as with litigation anything I say and do can be used against the district.”
The petition now has more than 500 signatures.
Capital improvement plan approved
The district has built five new schools since the passage of the WC-1 ballot question in 2016 that placed a .54% tax on the sale of goods in the county. Another five new schools will be opening by 2023, district staff told trustees.
Trustees unanimously voted to accept the district’s Capital Funding Protection Committee’s recommendation to approve a five-year capital improvement plan, to include an additional $15 million for the Debbie Smith CTE Academy.
They also agreed that at some point staff will need to provide a lengthier presentation to the board about how the district funds capital projects, including with the use of WC-1 money. The district will use a mix of debt financing and pay-as-you-go sources from sales taxes, property taxes and government services taxes on vehicle registration to pay for more than a half a billion dollars’ worth of construction projects and other expenses in the next five years.
Church was the one to suggest a presentation from staff to explain capital improvement spending after he questioned staff about costs related to replacing school buses and providing body cameras for school police and why these costs were being paid for using WC-1 money.
The district will be reimbursed for the bodycams, which are a state requirement, and the school buses will be paid for using other capital improvement revenue sources. The district wants to replace buses every 15 years to ensure they’re serviceable and safe.
While these were easily addressed misunderstandings, Church said further education on capital spending by the district might clear up future ones. The other trustees agreed.
Church also criticized the capital funding protection committee, which is made up of elected officials from Washoe County, Reno and Sparks and representatives from industries like construction and gambling.
In particular, he questioned whether it’s in the best interests of the district to have two Washoe County Commissioners, Bob Lucey and Jeanne Herman, sitting on the committee even as the district is suing the county.
Learning models to remain unchanged in final weeks of school year
Many parents have been pushing the school district to return to in-person learning since before it was even allowable under Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19-related mandates. The restrictions enforced under those mandates are being loosened, but the school district will not be making changes to its learning models prior to the end of this school year.
District staff, including school principals, have said returning students to in-person learning so close to the end of the school year would be more than disruptive. The last day of the school year is a little more than a month away, on June 9, so elementary students will remain in-person full time while secondary students will stay on a hybrid schedule of in-person and distance learning.
High school seniors, however, will be prioritized for a return to campuses. A lot has been lost for the graduating class of 2021 whose members will proceed into adulthood not having gotten to experience many of the traditions associated with senior year, from prom to pep rallies.
Seniors who want to return to their campuses are being advised to contact their school principals—something Student Trustee Victoria Gomez said many have been unaware was an option.
Gomez said a survey of 100 seniors on distance learning revealed many of them wanted to return.
“Most of them said they wanted to go back, but didn’t know they could just ask their principals to go back. They thought they had to continue in hybrid learning,” she told the board.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.