Sorting it out



On July 22, media outlets began reporting that the Washoe County School Board had fired schools superintendent Pedro Martinez.

That was not what the school board had said. In a prepared statement it used a different phrase—“relieved of his duties.” This term usually refers to a step short of termination, as when Nevada Highway Patrol chief David Hosmer was relieved of duty in 2006 while an inquiry into his conduct was conducted. In addition, if the school board intended to say termination, it presumably would have used that term.

On the morning of July 23, the RN&R, our interest piqued by the wording, made some calls and by noon felt certain that Martinez was still on the district payroll. We posted a report on our Newsview blog at 12:38 p.m.: “Sources tell the Reno New & Review that Washoe schools superintendent Pedro Martinez has not been fired, but has been placed on paid administrative leave. They say no vote was taken last night. Rather, the board acted by consensus without a vote, whatever that means.” School district lawyer Randy Drake told us he would be putting out a statement shortly to clarify what had happened the night before. (He never did.)

As the afternoon wore on, the firing story kept gaining ground. KOLO, KTVN, KRNV, and the Reno Gazette-Journal all posted stories repeating that Martinez had been fired. Finally school board chair Barbara Clark said that he had not been, and that he was on paid leave. The Reno Gazette-Journal put that story online at 4:50. Meanwhile, Martinez was trying to gather support and giving interviews. At 6:38 that evening, a KTVN story on one of those interviews went up, and it still used the term “firing” more than an hour after Clark had spoken.

After Clark's statement, Martinez kept insisting he'd been fired. But he had no way of knowing what action the board took because, he himself had said, he was asked to leave the room while the board took action. (“Took action” is a term used advisedly. Some sources say no vote was taken either in open or closed session.) Clark, not Martinez, was the authority on what had been done. But some media entities seemed reluctant to let go of the firing story or were uncomfortable admitting they had gone beyond the school board's original statement.

On July 24, some outlets were still treating the matter as a firing. One fortunate newspaper was the Sparks Tribune. Its publication schedule meant its next edition was after Clark's statement, so from the start it reported paid leave instead of a firing. But the Gazette-Journal continued to use terms like “removal” and even challenged the notion of paid leave in an editorial on the ground that school board chair Barbara Clark had spoken of preparations for seeking a replacement—which, however, would have been a normal precaution even if Martinez had only been put on leave. (Hosmer ended up leaving his post.) As late as July 29, the RGJ was still referring to the board's “attempt to dismiss.”

A school district spokesperson said school board minutes “take several months to get approved.” These minutes may have to be hurried up this time, given the level of interest in them and the open meeting complaint filed by the RGJ. If they show the board did not vote, then not only was Martinez not fired, he wasn't put on leave, either. In that case, he is still superintendent of schools with full authority. The board cannot act without taking a vote. One source said another vote was planned to cover that eventuality, but an agenda item for its upcoming July 29 meeting that could have been used for that purpose has been withdrawn. If the board did not vote, that may reduce some of its open meeting problems.

Why did the board's original statement say Martinez had been relieved of his duties but not that he was on paid leave? According to some sources, that was done at his insistence. Why didn't the board correct the record more quickly? Harder to say.