A dispute over one Washoe County School District principal’s firing is heading all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court.
And it could cost the district more than $400,000 for three years in back pay and benefits, if the principal succeeds in her appeal for wrongful termination, which recently swung in her favor.
The long legal battle started in February 2013 when Kara White, principal of Lemmon Valley Elementary School, was suddenly suspended and later terminated. District officials were tight-lipped, refusing to provide any explanation to parents, the public or news media asking why the lauded principal was fired.
Under White’s leadership, the north Reno school skyrocketed from a failing to awarded school.
When White took over the elementary school, less than half the fifth-graders met standards in math and science. Only a third possessed the expected reading skills, according to Nevada’s standardized tests. By the time of White’s firing four years later in May 2013, more than 80 percent of Lemmon Valley’s fifth-graders were proficient in math, science and reading, far exceeding the average performance of district elementary schools.
Supervisors gave White glowing performance evaluations, deeming her accomplished or distinguished in all areas in 2012.
“The success Lemmon Valley Elementary School continues to demonstrate is a testament to Ms. White’s high expectations for both staff and students,” area Superintendent Doug Parry wrote in his 2012 review of the first-time principal.
The reasons for White’s firing remained a mystery to the public as she appealed her termination in private arbitration hearings. The district stood its ground, convincing an arbitrator to uphold White’s termination.
White appealed to Reno’s District Court, winning the case in November and effectively striking down the arbitrator’s district-favoring decision.
Silent and unemployed since 2013, White now feels free to speak, she said in a recent interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal. The appeal in District Court makes everything public, including the district’s claims for her termination.
“Even being a cancer survivor, this is the toughest thing I’ve gone through in my life,” said White with tears in her eyes.
Since being fired, White has applied for jobs in numerous school districts. The 41-year-old sought clerical work and substitute teaching, but was never hired.
“It’s very hard to even get an interview,” said White, concluding it must be the black spot on her resume.
The district declined to take questions from the Gazette-Journal about White’s firing, stating that it “will not discuss pending litigation.”
White has long known why the district said it’s firing her. It’s now spelled out in court records filed by the district’s lawyers.
A school counselor reported to the district in early 2013 that White bought her a $149 necklace and also purchased lunch for the entire school staff using funds earmarked for student activities. After investigating, Parry found that White “authorized excessive and inappropriate expenditures” in the two most recent school years. The district suspended White, and soon after moved to terminate her.
“I have never denied that I used funds this way or that way,” White told the Gazette-Journal, repeating what was said in court and arbitration about her four years as principal. “I was always very accountable, turning in receipts for everything.”
White asserted that she didn’t knowingly do anything wrong, thinking the money was for discretionary purposes. She didn’t recall receiving training on the specific uses of student activity funds, White testified.
The district also said White was terminated for something it discovered after suspending her. According to the district, White told teachers they must participate in a training session, for which some teachers used sick days that were restored to them.
White said she didn’t tell teachers the training was mandatory and they would be reimbursed for using sick days. If there was any concern from teachers inferring such an edict, no one brought it to her attention, she said.
An arbitrator found White “less than credible and dishonest,” and upheld her firing on those grounds.
Judge Scott Freeman, however, disagreed with the arbitrator.
“The record does not turn up substantial evidence of dishonesty,” Freeman wrote in his ruling, criticizing the arbitrator who “exceeded his authority.”
No evidence indicates that White knowingly violated district policies, Freeman wrote in his decision.
“Dishonesty requires intent,” Freeman added. “Principal White believed she was using the funds to encourage and congratulate her teachers and to foster a sense of community and pride.”
While there was “abundant evidence of miscommunication” between teachers and White over the training, the judge found “no indication of intentional dishonesty.”
But that’s not why Freeman overturned the arbitrator’s decision.
The contract between all 96 Washoe school principals and the district says discipline must be progressive. Principals must “be given reasonable opportunity for improvement.” The district can’t fire, demote or suspend principals “without just cause,” reads the contract.
“I deserve to be principal and have that chance to improve,” White said.
Several former and current district administrators testified that other principals had made similar missteps and weren’t terminated. They were trained and allowed to improve. When contacted by the Gazette-Journal, all but one of these testifiers declined to comment. Many of them still have contact with or work for the school district.
“I’ve never seen the district go to such great lengths for minor mistakes,” said Alyson Kendrick, who testified in the case.
Kendrick is a 23-year district employee and president of the Washoe School Principals’ Association representing White in her legal battle.
While the district declined to comment on White’s case, it did answer questions about previous actions taken against principals in similar situations.
“The district is not aware of any other principals who have been terminated for using student activity funds to reward staff,” officials responded.
This raises a larger question that has perplexed White and her lawyers for years: Why did the district terminate a celebrated principal for mistakes so benign and easily correctable?
“That’s been confounding, and it has really felt like a witch hunt,” White said. “I never had a chance to step back on the campus and fix anything. I’ve continued to have faith and believe that the truth – at some point – will come through.”
But the matter isn’t settled, yet.
Counter to what the principal’s union expected, the district didn’t settle with White after the court ruling, Kendrick said.
The district appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, doing so because it “believes its decision to dismiss the principal is supported by the law,” wrote officials in a statement to the Gazette-Journal.
Before it decides on whether to hear the case, the Supreme Court has ordered the district and White to seek a settlement. Both sides will sit down for that meeting on Jan. 28 with a court-appointed mediator.
Ron Dreher, representative for White, said the former principal will seek nothing less than full back pay to April 29, 2013, when she was put on unpaid suspension. White, who now lives in Dixon, Calif., also wants to be reinstated as a Washoe school principal and issued a letter from the district clearing her name.
“I need help in restoring my reputation and integrity,” said White, who grew up in Northern Nevada and worked in Washoe schools for nearly 17 years. “It’s my home.”
If the parties can’t come to an agreement, the Supreme Court could take the case or send it back to arbitration, which would extend what Judge Freeman already called an unnecessarily prolonged battle for White.
“Her livelihood and reputation have been on the line for far too long,” he said. “Principal White deserved much more than the long, drawn-out procedure she was afforded.”