Board needs to school itself

Washoe County, after a turbulent year, now has a new schools superintendent in place.

Unfortunately for her, she must face the job with baggage not of her own making.

As readers know, this newspaper has taken a different view of the issues involved in the departure of Pedro Martinez as Washoe schools superintendent. As we have reported (“Board Games,” RN&R, Oct. 23, 2014), the dispute was more nuanced than the Reno Gazette-Journal and some of the television reporters portrayed it, involving the legal advice the board was given—which it is required to follow—and the state attorney general failing to follow its own internal rules in order to hang an open meeting conviction on the board. This was more than just a straight open meeting dispute. In addition, there were those who used open meeting issues as a beard to pursue their own grievances against the board involving Martinez. It is particularly regrettable that segments of this community’s Latinos and African-Americans were pitted against each other by those exploiting the controversy.

But new superintendent Traci Davis will have to live with the outcome of that long trail of anger. And while we believe the Washoe County School Board got a bum rap on the original controversy involving Martinez and the open meeting law, the board has not made her future any easier in recent months.

We get that the members of the school board are not politicians. That’s one of the good things about it. But just employing common sense would tell them that if there is public concern about open meetings, they should thereafter bend over backward to make sure that the public is given every opportunity, providing maximum, not minimum compliance with the law. Why didn’t they look for opportunities to open things up? Provide six days instead of the required three days for meeting notices and agendas. Hold public hearings at every opportunity. And looking for a new superintendent was one of those opportunities. We do not understand what possessed the board members to cut the process short and hire Ms. Davis without a search and interviewing process. That was a great chance to bring the community back in.

Further, the school board now needs to find publicly employed legal counsel that is independent of the board—that is, either a deputy attorney general or a deputy district attorney. The district attorney doesn’t want his office to start doing it again. He must be convinced. A commercial law firm—one now provides temporary legal services to the board—or a school board-employed counsel will not do. Public legal counsel must both advise board members and protect the public’s interest. Law firms and board-employed counsel will do only the first and will also be too inclined to serve up the kind of advice board members want, like an order of fries.

“Government, both federal and state, has increased in size and, while becoming involved in more aspects of our private lives, has become more removed from our immediate control,” former attorney general William Baxley has written. “As a consequence, the state’s attorney has had to assume an ambivalent posture in some instances. Quite simply, the actions of governmental entities are now often at odds with the public interest.”