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Court leaning toward siding with WCSD in lawsuit filed by school board trustee

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The fate of Washoe County School Board Trustee Jeff Church’s second lawsuit against the school district is not looking good–for Church. Second Judicial District Court Judge Barry Breslow said on Wednesday that after a hearing on the case, he is leaning toward deciding in the school district’s favor.

At issue is whether Church can require school district officials to investigate an alleged harassment complaint made against him. Church said he was informed last year that two people had complained that he said something inappropriate to them. He requested an investigation and said WCSD attorney Neil Rombardo rebuffed him.

Church argued that school board policy requires an investigation of such matters. He said he sued only after being told WCSD would not investigate the situation. He later found out, however, in WCSD’s court filings that an investigation had allegedly been conducted into the incident.

Breslow, however, implied the district has discretion as to whether to conduct an investigation. He further said only Church amplified the alleged complaint against him by filing a lawsuit and discussing it with the news media.

“He decided to bring this up and in public… not seeing the light of day but for his own actions,” Breslow said.

However, Church’s attorney, Luke Busby, argued that the WCSD administration and fellow trustees have targeted Church for being a “Trump conservative.”

“My client is a target at Washoe County School District, and he has been for years. He’s the target because of his political views,” Busby said. “All we’re trying to get the courts to do in this case is to compel the [school district] to follow the rules as it would for any other person in similar circumstances.”

Church said he was compelled to defend himself, which is why he sued the district — to force an investigation. Church said the matter is similar to when WCSD hired an outside law firm to investigate whether a prior trustee moved out of her district but continued to serve on the school board.  

“It’s so wrong that the public should know about what occurred.”

Church said that finding out the allegations against him were not substantiated by evidence prompted him to take action.

“It’s seen the light of day because he’s seeking [for] the district to enforce its own rules and regulations, using the court process,” Busby said. “He allegedly made harassing comments to female employees at a particular time and place, so in response to that, he did a public records request to see the video. There’s no way this possibly could have occurred because no such interaction happened. It’s so wrong that the public should know about what occurred.”

Church sent several communications about the case to the news media and his supporters. He has another lawsuit against WCSD over public records, which is pending.

He also alleged the trustees overrode WCSD policies to prevent an investigation by the WCSD auditor from happening.

“The Board of Trustees commandered their own internal auditor and told him not to investigate this issue, which is plain violation of the law,” Busby added. “They can’t pick and choose which of their own rules and regulations to follow. The reason they did that is obvious: Their … rules and regulations say that [auditor Kirk] Starkey has to be independent, objective and free from interference.”

Jeff Church’s attorney Luke Busby, left, addresses Judge Breslow during a hearing in the 2nd Judicial Court in Reno on May 29, 2024.
Jeff Church’s attorney Luke Busby, left, addresses Judge Breslow during a hearing in the 2nd Judicial Court in Reno on May 29, 2024. Jason Bean / RGJ pool photo.

Church has long been a thorn in the side of WCSD — and other local governments he criticizes. WCSD threatened to sue Church before he was elected as a trustee. WCSD implied Church was defaming the district at the time. 

According to WCSD’s attorney, Church has never won a case or been successful in several other complaints filed against local governments. Once on the board, he faced a censure attempt by other trustees. That went nowhere, but Busby cited the attempted censure to demonstrate that other school board members were targeting Church. Members of the public also issued a call for his resignation during the pandemic, and Church’s actions and statements are often disputed.

Trustees approved up to $500,000 in March to defend themselves in litigation against Church and his supporters. The McDonald Carano law firm represents WCSD in this case.

Attorney Adam Hosmer-Henner argued for the district that the court has no authority to force WCSD to do an investigation or that the internal auditor can request such an investigation.

“There is one item for relief — that is requested with respect to the investigation — and that is to fund and pay for an independent external investigation,” he said. “There is no allegation or citation to any board policy regulation where Mr. Starkey even has the authority to request an external investigation, let alone the mandatory duty to do so.”

“The court is more persuaded by the defense arguments at this point.”

Church requested the court determine whether relief will be granted through an evidentiary hearing.

“We’re here to determine whether there’s a legal right for this court to order Mr. Starkey in his capacity as an internal auditor to do something that he has not done,” Breslow said. 

Hosmer-Henner again disputed whether the court could make such an order. 

“There is not a mandatory duty anywhere in any board policy or administrative regulation,” he said. ” This would ask this court to require the Washoe County School District to pay for and expend its funds and resources on an external investigation. I can’t point to one source of law that would compel that as a result.”

He accused Church of seeking a political benefit in “some sort of public exoneration.”

“Trustee church makes a living by suing the school district,” Hosmer Henner added. “If he’s a target of anything, it’s of wasting taxpayer resources, of harming the school district and working against the objectives of the school district for his … political benefit.”

Breslow said he was inclined to side with the school district.

“The court is more persuaded by the defense arguments at this point,” he said, adding that he expects to issue a decision in the near future.

Disclosure: Attorney Luke Busby represents This Is Reno in public records litigation. He did not provide information or comment on this story.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.

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