The school district’s top 5 worst goofs, gaffes and lies
How did the Washoe County School District melt down? Let’s count the ways.
Traci Davis is out. The oft-criticized superintendent of schools was ousted by the Washoe County School Board of Trustees in a slo-mo, Terminator-styled detonation that had the Reno community riveted for two weeks. Days of drama ensued in mid-June when school board of trustees President Katy Simon Holland sneakily announced Davis had taken a surprise leave of absence.
Her statements to the news media and public were laced with nonsense. Nothing of what she said about Davis’ abrupt leave added up. Holland’s attempt at transparency was to dole out droplets of information that prompted the community to raise more questions than the school district was willing to answer.
In fact, getting straightforward answers to simple questions from the district is often a Sisyphean exercise. The more the school district refrains from candid discussion, the more questions get raised. Rinse, repeat.
How did we get to this point? It depends who you ask.
Many claim the Washoe County School District’s troubles have existed, to some extent, forever. Public entities always engender ire when citizens don’t feel like they’re being honestly informed as to their activities. Add in parental protectionism and the insistence that everyone is an expert on how to raise their own children—and, by extension, how their kiddos should be educated—and taxpayer-funded organizations like school districts will, to some degree, always be objects of criticism. It doesn’t matter who’s leading the charge.
Nevertheless, many commenters, including some of the hundreds of teachers who created a Facebook group out of frustration with their administration, and the state of Nevada education in general, say problems became more pronounced more recently. Superintendent Heath Morrison’s short tenure was followed by Pedro Martinez, whose ouster was, by most accounts, a disaster.
The school board violated the open meeting law and cost taxpayers a half million dollars in settlement fees, including 15 months of salary and benefits, to get rid of Martinez for an alleged resume infraction.
Davis was then ushered in, in 2014, as Martinez’ replacement in a way that would leave a residual, fetid skepticism of the school board for years to come. It wouldn’t matter who actually served on the board; in the eyes of the community, the trustees as a whole were repeatedly incompetent.
During Davis’ tenure, despite the district having a number of new board members—some of whom ran on the promise of fixing damage, and, later, getting rid of Davis—the school district could not stop enacting behaviors that led to latent public mistrust.
Part of the reason was an extension of Davis’ incompetence as a superintendent. Other contributing factors, though, were the business-as-usual machinations within the school district.
1. Veiled legal threats
Criticize the Washoe County School District, and you may get hit back by the school district’s attorneys with a veiled accusation of defamation. Just ask Jeff Church, the retired Reno cop who rails against local governments and often speaks during public comment at local government meetings. The school district has been a regular object of his criticism.
During the 2016 campaign for the WC1 ballot question, and after its passage, Church was, from the perspective of the school district, off-base in how he characterized the voter-approved tax increase to fund new schools.
“[Chief Operating Officer Pete] Etchart and the District are placing Mr. Church on notice that if he continues to perpetuate this misrepresentation, he will be acting intentionally and in disregard to the truth, and thus he will be committing defamation, which may be pursued,” according to an ominous, unsigned document posted online by the school district in 2017.
Church, however, said he never was given a copy of the document, which focused on him and his claims, and only later discovered it online.
“I happened to come across it at a much later date, and I stand by what I said, and time has proven me accurate in so many regards,” he told me.
Defamation, it turns out, is a repeated school district refrain.
When I questioned Holland’s misleading—nay, false—statements to the news media in June after it was revealed just how much she actually knew about Davis taking leave, the school district responded, in part, that “there are laws related to defamation and accusing people of lying.”
Las Vegas-based First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza called the perceived intent of this comment laughable.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it ain’t malice,” he said. “It would be an exquisite pleasure for any First Amendment lawyer to file [a motion] against a public entity stupid enough to file a defamation suit on those facts.”
Even Trina Olsen, the administrator the school district illegally fired a year ago (“Out of school,” cover story, Sept. 6, 2018), was basically accused of defamation by Davis and board president Holland.
Olsen had reported that she was told that a colleague gave marijuana back to a student, which she said she reported as she believed she was mandated to do. Evidence supported Olsen’s concern. A now-retired area superintendent documented the incident in one of the disciplinary letters the district crafted against Olsen.
“That student had served as an informant and had provided the school with the name of the student who was dealing … drugs on the campus,” wrote Roger Gonzalez, the retired area superintendent.
Another employee reported that a dean had given cannabis back to the student, and Olsen said the dean admitted as much during an arbitration hearing. I spoke with a school district employee who had a role in the incident. The employee said the student even bragged about getting the pot back.
“It was a nugget with a recognizable odor,” the employee explained. “I’m 100 percent sure the dean gave the student back the marijuana—no question.”
District leaders, however, denied this occurred.
“Drugs were never returned to either of these students,” Holland and Davis wrote to Olsen in January. “The district may have considered lesser discipline for students who may have possessed minuscule amounts of substances that may or may not be drugs, who immediately recognized the problems with their actions, apologized, and after the fact, provided information to law enforcement.
“To be clear, it would be defamation to state otherwise.”
2. Selective rules enforcement
The irony of Davis’ ouster is how much it resembled Davis’ own treatment of Olsen, the assistant principal the school district went to great lengths to fire a year ago. Davis ultimately signed off on Olsen’s termination in July of 2018. An independent arbitrator found the district’s firing of Olsen illegal, arbitrary and capricious.
“The decision to move forward with dismissal seems to have prolonged the cost and pain to both Ms. Olsen and the district, which is particularly unfortunate, given that dismissal was not warranted,” wrote arbitrator Andrea Dooley.
Dooley further called the district’s actions retaliatory and overly punitive, finding that by denying Olsen arbitration before being fired, the school district violated state law.
During the year that Olsen was on paid leave, forced upon her by the school district, she reached out to the school board for help. That went nowhere.
“Neither I nor members of the Board of Trustees can engage with you on your personnel matter,” board president Holland wrote to Olsen.
The next year, however, Holland weighed in on two of Davis’ buddies who were determined by the district to have leaked confidential information in relation to a lawsuit against the district.
“I would strongly encourage you to terminate those two employees immediately,” Holland wrote to Davis.
Olsen paid more than $50,000 in attorneys’ fees—from her children’s college savings funds—to save her job.
The school district was ultimately directed by Dooley to reinstate her in December and to pay her back from the time she was fired in July through going back to work in early January.
The school district’s attorneys attempted to change the arbitrator’s directives and even noted that they didn’t even have to accept Dooley’s recommendations. They wanted conditions placed on Olsen’s reinstatement; notably, they wanted her to keep her mouth shut.
“Since the law did not require the District to accept the arbitrator’s decision, the District thought it was in the best interest of both parties as well as your co-workers to work cooperatively in not discussing confidential employee matters in public, thus, the suggestion of a non-disparagement clause,” Davis and Holland wrote to Olsen.
Olsen, however, repeatedly urged the district to address her concerns internally and said she only went to the news media after being repeatedly ignored by district officials. After arbitration, Olsen refused the district’s terms. She is now at Wooster High School as an assistant principal.
But the administrator who trumped up more than a dozen claims to get Olsen fired, Lauren Baxter Ford, previously Hug High School’s principal and Olsen’s boss, advanced into an area superintendent position just after booting Olsen off of the Hug High campus in 2017.
Olsen’s requests for investigations into a number of her complaints, including harassment and retaliation, were ignored by the board of trustees, her then-area superintendent, and by Superintendent Traci Davis.
But when Ford complained to the school board about Olsen’s case—where she characterized Olsen as disgruntled—she requested an outside investigation. It was approved on the spot.
The district’s chief legal counsel, Neil Rombardo, authorized two investigations—one into one of Olsen’s claims, and one into Ford’s complaint. He hired an attorney already defending the school district in another case. He and Davis cited board policy to authorize the investigations.
Standards appeared selective.
The firing of Davis was predicated upon alleged negligence. Holland and the school district’s legal counsel, Rombardo, said that Davis was complicit and/or negligent in two subordinates leaking information to benefit a complainant in her case against the school district.
Davis’ attorney, Bill Peterson, vehemently denied Davis knew anything about the leaks. The hundreds of pages of evidence presented by the school district show little or nothing about Davis’ alleged role in the leaks, Peterson said.
Chief Student Services Officer Byron Green—one of the two accused of leaking information—reported to then-Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill from the 2015 academic year through the ‘17-'18 school year. She was quickly placed into the interim superintendent position after Davis was fired.
3. Lying to the news media
A 2016 study by Harvard scholars, “Artful Paltering: The Risks and Rewards of Using Truthful Statements to Mislead Others,” by Todd Rogers, et al., identifies three ways to lie: committing blatant lies, omitting information, and by paltering, which involves truthful statements made in such a way as to deceive.
The Washoe County School District is familiar with all three.
Paltering “differs from lying by omission (the passive omission of relevant information) and lying by commission (the active use of false statements),” according to Harvard University professors, who published their paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Like lying by omission, paltering can involve failing to disclose relevant information, but unlike lying by omission, paltering involves the active disclosure of true but misleading information: paltering enables would-be deceivers to actively influence a target’s beliefs.”
A famous example of paltering, they wrote, was made by former President Bill Clinton. (Trump is also a master palterer.)
“There is not a sexual relationship,” Clinton famously proclaimed about his relations with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
It was, technically, a true statement at the time, but as history quickly showed, Clinton was far from being honest.
“Many viewers inferred from Clinton’s response that he had not had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky,” the Harvard researchers noted. “Palterers hold a mistaken mental model, failing to anticipate how negatively the targets of their palters will perceive them should they detect their deceit. As a result, paltering can promote conflict.”
That’s what the school district experienced when it fired Davis. Rather than come forward with what it knew, the school district, through board president Holland, denied anything was amiss.
I asked Holland what the precipitating factors were that prompted Davis to go on leave.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You are 100% clear you have no idea why Traci Davis has taken leave at this time?” I repeated.
“All the information I have is that she’s taking leave for personal reasons,” Holland said. “You have as much information as I do about that.”
In fact, Holland was instrumental in Davis’ ouster. Under a bogus pretext, Holland and Trustee Angie Taylor met with Davis in mid-June and gave Davis a settlement offer that included her resignation.
Davis’ attorney, Peterson, said the handling of Davis’ firing was laced with deceit. He called Holland’s statements to the news media blatant lies.
“The District’s purpose here is clear—to circumvent the normal evaluation process and terminate Superintendent’s Employment Agreement ’for cause’ on an expedited timetable with no regard for fairness, due process or the truth,” Peterson said. “That purpose is further manifested by the pattern of deception, misrepresentation and manipulation demonstrated by the District in bringing these charges and the political strategy to defame her and her counsel in public after bringing those charges.”
4. Amazing truth bending
The Washoe County School District is nothing if not consistent. Throughout the past year, it never admitted fault once. About anything. It repeatedly defended itself in Olsen’s case. It defended its disastrous handling of the digital snow days. It criticized the news media.
The district proclaimed it was a “learning organization,” it vowed that it was committed to transparency, and it repeatedly claimed that it fostered a culture of respect.
At the same time, the school district went to great lengths to affirm what it wanted people to believe—even when its claims were obfuscated and unsupported.
The Harvard researchers predicted this behavior. Those with a vested interest to deceive actually believe they are behaving ethically, the researchers reported.
“Deceivers who engage in paltering are likely to engage in motivated reasoning,” they explained. “Self-interest often guides how individuals perceive the morality of their own behavior. … Deceivers who lie by commission are constrained in their ability to justify their behavior, because they used statements that were explicitly untrue.
“Deceivers who palter, however, can focus on their use of truthful statements and discount the misleading consequences or attribute the misleading inference to the target (who should have paid closer attention to exactly what the deceiver was saying).”
The district pledged, just after Davis was canned, a new era of transparency. It would, district officials claimed, produce public information it was legally permissible to produce.
Both the Reno Gazette Journal and ThisisReno requested copies of Holland’s comminiques during the Davis debacle. Under the Nevada Public Records Act, and based on the district’s new commitment, there are few reasons those should not be produced.
The district found some.
“This particular request involves extraordinary use of staff time to ensure that student records and private personnel information is redacted in accordance with state and federal laws,” said district spokesperson Megan Downs. “The District answers a large number and the overwhelming majority of public records requests without a cost.”
This time, however, Washoe County School District wanted $1,500 for the records with half of that amount up front. Downs did say, however, that it would produce a “report” of these documents that will include “email subject line and date.”
5. All of the above laced with condescension
Reporting on the school district in the past year, a practice inspired by early inquiries to district officials that were met with information blockades and condescension, has been a fascinating exercise.
It seemed as if the more I attempted to gain information, or to simply understand issues, the more the district engaged in obfuscation.
At one point, I asked why the school district evaluated Davis only on positive news coverage, not all news coverage. I was directed to watch and listen to more than four hours of public meetings to find the answer.
Another time, I asked how much the district’s counsel was spending on outside legal consultations. The response: “Board Policy 9165 allows the Chief General Counsel to hire outside lawyers where deemed necessary. As to cost, it depends on the time it takes to investigate.”
I also requested information as to employees who spoke in Area Superintendent Lauren Baxter Ford’s favor during a school board meeting, when Rombardo and Davis approved her investigation.
I wanted to know: Did her supporters who spoke during public comment, many of whom are her friends and subordinates, take personal leave time to attend a board of trustees meeting and speak on Ford’s behalf?
“You will need to make a public records request for any additional information,” spokesperson Downs replied.
The district’s response: “There is no public record responsive to your request [and] the district is not required to create a public record to satisfy a public records request. This Office is not aware of the employees who provided public comment at the referenced Board meeting.”
Rather than answer the question, the school district adopted a Clintonesque response strategy: It paltered.
When asked about the misleading statements to the news media by Holland while working to fire Davis, the district paltered again.
“No one encouraged anyone to mislead the public,” their spokesperson wrote in an email.
CORRECTION: This story originally reported that both David Lasic and Byron Green reported to previous Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill. Only Green was supervised by McNeill.