Home > Featured > School board holds first contentious meeting of new academic year (updated)

School board holds first contentious meeting of new academic year (updated)

By Jeri Chadwell
Published: Last Updated on

The Washoe County School District (WCSD) Board of Trustees began its first meeting of the new school year by appointing trustees to the leadership roles of vice president and clerk. It was the start to another contentious meeting full of heated public comment.

Many of the same commenters who regularly show up to meetings to deride the board, its decisions, the specter of critical race theory, inclusive and comprehensive sex ed and other issues turned out Tuesday afternoon to voice their support for Trustee Jeff Church as vice president of the board.

Board President Angie Taylor asked multiple times for those in the audience to refrain from clapping between public comments. Commenters accused Taylor of applying the no-clapping rule only to certain speakers. Taylor regularly reminds public commenters on all sides of any issue not to applaud and to wear their face masks over their noses and mouths.

Commenters echoed one another in saying the board of trustees is politically influenced. They accused the board of replacing a Republican former trustee Andrew Caudill with a Democrat, newly appointed Joe Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is a veteran. He’s been in law enforcement since 2006 and now works with the Nevada State Fire Marshal’s office.

“Are you all for socialism? Are you all for socialist policies? Is that where we’re heading?” asked one commenter. “We’re here to support Jeff Church.” She said she would like to see him help set the board agenda.

Trustee Diane Nicolet piped up to say the board is non-partisan, a statement that was met with uproarious laughter from the crowd.

Diane Nicolet

“I did not laugh at you, and I did not call you liars,” Nicolet said, adding that she had never before seen a campaign by a board of trustees member—referencing Church—to undermine the board like the one she said is currently underway.

Church chimed in to say that people who’ve accused commenters of having been rude or angry must have been watching different meetings than he is.

The board eventually voted unanimously to appoint former Board Clerk Ellen Minetto to the position of vice president.

Nicolet was nominated to the position of clerk by Minetto. Trustee Jaqueline Calvert nominated new Trustee Beth Smith, and new Trustee Joe Rodriguez nominated Church.

The board took up the nominations in the order they were made, and Nicolet was approved as clerk in the first vote, 6-1, with Church voting nay.

Taylor explained to the trustees and audience members that voting on the position of clerk would not require a ranked-choice vote because each nomination counted as an individual motion, and the motion to approve Nicolet passed out of the gate.

Investment management contract discussed

The board moved on to its consent agenda items, multiple of which were pulled for discussion by Church—including an agenda item to renew a one-year contract with Buckhead Capital for professional investment management services for $369,000.

Church questioned if the contract was put out for bid through a request for proposal process. It was. He also asked if Buckhead Capital charges the district more if it decides to save more money and spend less.

District Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers said that the company is paid on a sliding scale of fees based on assets under their management.

“They’re paid less if the assets go down,” Mathers said. “If they go up they have a bigger job to do with purchasing and managing securities… We don’t normally bank money for the purpose of banking money. We issue bonds when we want to build new schools, and intend to spend those bonds on contractors to build new schools. We bank money to spend money.”

Mathers further explained that Buckhead Capital is a registered investment company and a fiduciary of the district, not a broker.  He said the district invested very little prior to 2018 but since investing more has increased its total interest earnings from under $1 million in 2016 to around $7 million by early 2021, noting that’s a nearly tenfold return on investments.

Mask dispute continues

The board’s regular agenda items included a comparatively lighter load than in recent months, including presentations by students about their experiences on the first day of school and the introduction of new principals in the district.

Two items, however, drew extensive public comment. The first was the board’s standing discussion of COVID-19 trends and associated mitigation efforts. On August 4, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed Emergency Directive 048 related to face coverings and other mitigation strategies for K-12 county school district, charter and private school settings within Nevada.

Face coverings are required in county school district, charter and private school settings in counties with a population of 100,000 or greater. All K-12 grade students, regardless of whether they would be exempt from the face covering requirement based on their age, must wear face coverings while inside school buildings unless granted an exception.

Jeff Church, center, at a Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting at Damonte Ranch High School March 30, 2021.
Jeff Church, center, at a Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting at Damonte Ranch High School March 30, 2021. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

The school district will be following the governor’s directive, despite calls from public commenters to disregard it. The district’s Chief Legal Counsel Neil Rombardo told the board during an earlier meeting that attempting to flout the governor’s directives would be ill-advised.

Church spoke up to say, “The science does not support masks. I don’t support masks,” adding that he had seen photos of children “packed into schools like sardines” and that the meeting was packed at that moment.

“Masks are ineffective,” he said.

The National Academy of Sciences, in a review of the current scientific literature, noted, “Models suggest that public mask wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high.” 

This conclusion is also affirmed by researchers and major organizations including Mayo Clinic, Journal of the American Medical Association, World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Masks combined with vaccinations are the safest, most effective way to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to most all medical and health experts.

Social justice curriculum task force also a hot topic

The second agenda item that drew lengthy public comment was a presentation, for discussion only, regarding the formation of a superintendent’s task force to examine the implementation of supplementary social justice curriculum resources for kindergarten through fifth grade.

The task force will be formed in September. Its intention is to make sure the district is meeting Nevada Academic Content Standards by providing social justice supplementary materials and support for teachers.

The task force will include five parents of elementary schools from each regular district, four community members, two elementary school teachers chosen by the Washoe Education Association (WEA), one middle school teacher chosen by WEA, one high school teacher selected by WEA and one elementary school principal selected by the Washoe Schools Principals’ Association. 

It will also include two district central services representatives and two student representatives selected by the student advisory council.

The application process is open until Aug. 27. So far, about 90 people have applied for the task force. More about the application process can be found here.

“Just be there and be present and watch the students and the teachers and ask questions—just a heartfelt recommendation.”

Church said he had heard from constituents  that if an educator wants to refer to “white privilege, systemic racism, systemic oppression, suppression of voter rights, they could and will, and maybe are doing that right now.” He asked if that was true.

Deputy Superintendent Debra Biersdorff explained to him that educators would have to ensure what they’re discussing meets Nevada Academic Content Standards. If it does not, they cannot.

Nicolet addressed Church. 

“You bring up some great points, Jeff, and I’ll tell you what works for me. I talk to the principals, the teachers, I’ve asked to look at lesson plans … and teachers are pleased with that. I know where you’re coming from,” she explained. “You want some assurances as a trustee because we need to be trusted. So, when you do those school visits just ask. Just be there and be present and watch the students and the teachers and ask questions—just a heartfelt recommendation.”

Trustee Smith asked the age of the students who will be on the task force. Both will be high school students. She also asked if the names of the members of the task force will be made public.

“Will the task force members be known to the public?” she asked. “…There is fear there.”

The names of the adult members will be posted on the district’s website. The students’ names will not if they’re under 18.

Public comment dominates meeting—again

Discussion of the superintendent’s task force drew a lot of public comment from people opposed to teaching social justice curriculum—as did the board’s decision to continue following COVID-19 directives from the governor.

One woman ripped her mask off following public comment, prompting Taylor to call for a recess until everyone in attendance had masked back up.

Spencer Armstrong told the board he’d been unenrolled from McQueen High School as a result of curriculum being taught. He said his teacher had said on the first day of school that she would not be teaching about the American Revolution, the Civil War or the U.S. Constitution. He claimed she said she’d only be teaching about Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA issues.

“She also said if you were born male but are a female now and if you have parents that are against you being that way and won’t let you be that way, you can be that way in this class and make sure to talk to me, so I don’t bring it up to your parents over the phone,” Armstrong alleged. “One thing about me is that I don’t lie to my dad, and that’s why I’m here today. Teachers are wanting kids to lie to their parents so they can teach them evilness and brainwash them… I go to school to learn history and about our great country, not about politics.”

Armstrong didn’t name the teacher.

Public comment, as has increasingly been the case, ate up the majority of the meeting time. It was a relatively short board meeting at just under seven hours. 

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the school district’s records from the meeting initially incorrectly stated that Trustee Joe Rodriguez voted against Trustee Diane Nicolet for the position of board clerk. It was Trustee Jeff Church who voted against her.

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