A dispute over one Washoe County School District principal’s firing is heading all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court.

Carson City lawsuitsA 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.”

WCSD Trustees again in violation of Open Meeting Law AGAIN

WCSD open meeting law violationRENO, Nev. (MyNews4.com & KRNV) — In less than a year, Washoe County School District’s Board of Trustees has been found to be in violation of Nevada’s Open Meeting Law. Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt issued a six page opinion (Click here to read the opinion) about a complaint filed by citizen, Karen Dunaway. The incident stems from a school board meeting that took place October 28, 2014, at a time the Board was embroiled in a controversy over the firing of former Superintendent Pedro Martinez.

Laxalt said, “You had a member of the public that’s trying to comment. It’s a fundamental right that they’re able to comment and this person was shut down in the middle of that.” He added, “That is just not the way our law works.”

The opinion notes Dunaway alleged Trustee Barbara McLaury, who was acting as Board President at the time, and Board Counsel Randy Drake prevent Dunaway from making further comments when she was trying to discuss the firing of former school Police Chief Mike Mieras. When her remarks became critical of Martinez, she was instructed to put her comments in writing.  The opinion states she was told to do so because Martinez had not received required notice his professionalism or character would be discussed publically. Dunaway argued there was no legal standing to cut her comments short and the legal threat from Martinez’ attorneys was wrongly applied to her. The AG’s opinion agrees.  Laxalt said, “We hope they pay attention to this opinion and review it carefully and not repeat these mistakes.”

Laxalt said his office will not seek fines but has asked the Board of Trustees to post the opinion and publicly discuss it at the next opportunity, which could be at the next regularly scheduled meeting on March 18, 2015.

WCSD School Board President John Mayer issued the following statement:

“We are in receipt of the Attorney General’s opinion regarding the October 28, 2014 meeting of the Board of Trustees. At that meeting, a member of the public began making negative comments towards then-Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Based on correspondence from Mr. Martinez’ attorneys threatening to take action against the District if the Board directly or indirectly considered the professionalism, character or integrity of Mr. Martinez at this Board meeting, Vice President Barbara McLaury stopped the comments. There are no punitive penalties associated with this opinion and we thank the Attorney General’s Office for carefully considering the District’s position on this matter.”

If you would like to read the Attorney General’s news release click here.

The Washoe County School District’s share of a $771,415 settlement with its departing superintendent Pedro Martinez is $135,415, according to documents released this week by the district.

big-moneyThe Washoe County School District’s share of a $771,415 settlement with its departing superintendent Pedro Martinez is $135,415, according to documents released this week by the district.

Details of the amount of the settlement, and which entity must pay the different costs, were provided to the Reno Gazette-Journal after the newspaper filed a request for the information Sept. 24, citing the Nevada Public Records Act.

The lion’s share of the settlement — $576,000 — will be covered by school district’s special insurance fund.

The insurance fund will pay the district’s $85,000 in legal fees, Martinez’s $80,000 in legal fees, and the approximately $546,415 payout in salary and benefits for the 15 months remaining in Martinez’s job contract.

The board voted Sept. 23 to accept terms of the settlement as recommended by Washoe District Judge David Hardy, who served as a mediator.

The settlement came after months of upheaval in the school district’s administration.

The dispute began with a July 22 press conference where the school board announced Martinez was being relieved of his duties.

The school board later stated that it put Martinez on paid leave, a decision based on the erroneous belief that he had claimed to be a licensed certified public accountant.

Martinez said that he had been fired by six of the seven board members during an illegally closed meeting held prior to the press conference, and he later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.

The Nevada Attorney General’s office determined that the board had illegally terminated Martinez and that there was no basis for his dismissal.

Martinez’s settlement

• $85,000 for the district’s legal fees, paid by the school district’s insurance fund

• $80,000 for Pedro Martinez’s legal fees, paid by the district’s insurance fund

• $546,415 in salary and benefits paid to Martinez (assuming a payout for Oct. 2014 to Dec. 22, 2015)

• $411,000 of that $546,415 in salary and benefits will be paid from the Special Insurance Fund and through liability insurance coverage.

Final costs:

Total: $711,415

Insurance covers: $576,000

School district pays: $135,415

Source: Washoe County School District

WOW! Over 700 school district employees exit Nevada State Education Association

keep-calm-because-we-don-t-need-no-education-2LAS VEGAS — Over 700 teachers and support staff workers left their respective local affiliates of the Nevada State Education Association over the last summer, the Nevada Policy Research Institute announced today.+

At least seven support-staff unions, including those in the Clark and Washoe County School Districts, have also fallen below 50 percent membership and would be decertified upon a vote withdrawing recognition by their local school board.

The decreasing number of union employees comes after NPRI undertook numerous efforts to let teachers and support staff employees know about their ability to drop union membership, but only by submitting written notice from July 1 to 15.

These membership statistics come directly from school-district officials in response topublic records requests.

The Clark County School District saw the biggest drop in the number of teachers and support-staff workers belonging to their local union. At the close of the 2013-14 school year, the Clark County Education Association had 10,782 members out of 17,851 teachers, or 60.4 percent. At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, CCEA membership had fallen to under 59 percent with just 10,637 of CCSD’s 18,033 teachers a member of the union. That’s a decline of 327 union members — with net membership falling 145, while the number of teachers increased by 182. 

At the close of the last year, 5,642 of CCSD’s 11,225 support staffers were members of the Education Support Employee Association. At the start of this school year just 5,477 of CCSD’s 11,132 support staffers are members of ESEA, , a net decline of 137 members. With a membership of just 49.2 percent of workers, the CCSD board of trustees could vote immediately to withdraw recognition from ESEA according to NRS 288.160.3(c).

NSEA’s support-staff unions in at least six other school districts, including Washoe, Carson City, Douglas County, Elko, Humboldt and White Pine School Districts, have also fallen below the 50 percent threshold.

In the Washoe County School District, for instance, just 21 percent or 557 of its 2,658 support employees, are union members, which includes a decline of 96 union members over the summer. In the Elko County School District fewer than 20 percent of support staffers are union members, while support-staff union membership in Carson City is under 39 percent.

In early 2014, over 60.4 percent or 2,331 of the Washoe County School District’s 3,853 teachers were union members. In the fall of 2014, the Washoe Education Association had added seven new members, but the total number of teachers had increased by 109. On net, its union membership decreased by over 100 and the percentage of union membership among teachers fell to 59 percent.

“This summer, over 700 school district employees decided to leave the Nevada State Education Association,” said Victor Joecks, NPRI executive vice president. “Hundreds of these employees left — or never joined in the first place — after learning from NPRI that union membership is optional. NPRI is proud to have empowered teachers and support staffers with the information they needed.”

“This year alone, school district employees have given themselves a raise worth over $450,000 by keeping more of their salaries for their families instead of putting those dollars into the hands of union bosses.”

Joecks noted that, in total, NPRI’s information efforts have released over 2,150 teachers and support staffers from Nevada State Education Association membership and now saves school-district employees over $1.5 million a year. Over the last three years, NPRI’s efforts have helped school-district employees move over $3.2 million out from under the control of union bosses.

“In the last three years, CCEA membership has plummeted from 65 percent of teachers to less than 59 percent.” Joecks said. “In at least seven school districts, support staff union membership is under 50 percent. It’s time for school boards in these districts to withdraw recognition from NSEA’s local chapters and allow workers to form local-only unions, such as those that exist in states like Kansas.

“Teachers and support staff workers around Nevada have voted with their feet and showed their displeasure with NSEA. They’re tired of lousy customer service, high salaries for union officials and the union spending school district employees’ money on political causes those employees often don’t agree with.

“Until the NSEA views its potential members as customers to serve instead of cash cows to exploit, decreasing membership will continue.”