Was it race?

A suspicion lingers

Washoe Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez chatted at the Harrah’s Auto Collection after holding one of the school district’s “brown bag lunch” meetings.

Washoe Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez chatted at the Harrah’s Auto Collection after holding one of the school district’s “brown bag lunch” meetings.

Photo/Dennis Myers

Since the dispute over Washoe County Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez began, Latino leaders have been prominent in support of him and of a school board member, Estela Gutierrez.

Martinez was put on paid leave by the Washoe County School Board in a closed meeting after he refused to participate in a contractual dispute over his accounting credentials and because the school board members were taken aback by his allegedly unprofessional demeanor when he was confronted by the accusation about his credentials. It happened in the absence of school board member Gutierrez, who had not attended the meeting. No agenda item had informed the public such a thing was coming.

After the superintendent was put on leave, the Latino Leaders Roundtable quickly organized a forum for Pedro Martinez and school board member Gutierrez to speak at.

Latino leaders like Theresa Navarro and Leslie Mix have been prominent in calls for school board recall.

Reader comments on some websites dwell on the ethnicity of the superintendent.

Does all this mean that the controversy is about race?

“I cannot tell you that race is not a factor, if even from the standpoint of ethnic or cultural awareness, the necessity of having an individual so uniquely qualified to handle this growing, very challenging population,” said Truckee Meadows Community College president Maria Sheehan on Nevada Newsmakers on Aug. 4, who had spoken against the suspension of the superintendent. “The Latino population in fact is growing in our country, and we have a superintendent that knows from the inside how to be successful. Don’t we want to pass that on to our children? Aren’t we proud of having that? And so just that level of insensitivity of the need to address the kinds of challenges of this growing population, if just only from that level—.”

Sheehan’s comments could not be overlooked, and program host Sam Shad gingerly tiptoed into trying to determine what she was saying.

Shad: “OK, you realize you’ve made a very powerful statement here today, that you’re essentially accusing the board of racism.”

Sheehan: “I am not doing that.”

Shad asked her to elaborate.

Sheehan: “Let’s be careful, let’s be careful about the semantics. In terms of insensitivity of the necessity of having a leader address the issue, that’s what I’m saying. Now, these board members are in a very difficult position, and I did say that in my statement [at a public meeting], and I was careful to be respectful of them in my statement. But what we need now is resolution, not a deeper divide, not accusations of racism but a need to come together.”

Shad: “So in a way—and I’m not trying to put you in bad light here—but it’s almost like reverse racism to say that, you know, you need to have somebody of Hispanic ethnicity … as the superintendent of this school district. That doesn’t seem to add up to me.”

Sheehan: “No, and I’m not saying that. I’m saying that at this point in time, we have a uniquely qualified individual to handle some extreme challenges. Now, that could come from someone else that had that sensitivity. But today we’re in a place where we have someone, a leader, that can address challenges and move us forward.”

It’s a tricky needle to thread, and a program like Shad’s where a newsmaker can be heard for more than a soundbite helps bring outshadings in a nuanced stance like Sheehan’s, as television news reports do not. But how many people will hear that interview? What most local residents know is that Latino leaders are in the forefront of the recall effort, and that sends a powerful message, a message those leaders have not sought to dampen.

Does the fact that two of the players in the dispute—Martinez and Gutierrez—are Latino, in and of itself, mean that the race was a factor in the suspension of Martinez?

Where is the evidence of racism beyond the fact the two are Latino?

In other disputes of this sort, there is normally something more than mere ethnicity on the part of the players that fuels it. For instance, on Aug. 30, 2001, Southern Nevada Community College administrator Mike Meyer resigned after saying of the wife of a state legislator, “She’s a nigger, and niggers are never on time.”

That statement was unambiguous. But there have been no reported anti-Latino comments or actions on the part of the members of the Washoe school board, three of whom participated in hiring Martinez. School board chair Barbara Clark said she has never heard anyone on the board say anything racist, nor has she done so herself.

“Absolutely not,” she said.

Navarro said she believes race was a factor in the Martinez suspension, but also said she is unable to put her finger on any specific showing of it. She said she has been involved in working with the school district and has gotten a sense from some district staffers that there are members of the board who have a race problem, but was not able to cite anything concrete.

“I can’t pinpoint it for you,” she said. “I can only say it’s that feeling from some of the staff members, some of the people there. I haven’t heard any of the trustees [board members] say anything racist.”

But she remains convinced that race was a factor in the dispute.

“He [Martinez] is very popular with people in our community,” she said. “He has made changes for a lot of our kids.”

Clark said, “I was on the board that appointed Estela Gutierrez when Leslie [Porter] died. I was on the board that appointed Pedro Martinez as superintendent.”

She said the board obtained diversity funding from the legislature for a second person in the school district diversity office. It has ridden herd on “the cultural competency part of our mission”—making sure that everything from textbooks to the materials on classroom walls reflect the children who see them.

In addition, she said, the board has tried to address poverty among children, both of color and white, by increasing breakfast-in-the-classroom programs and free lunches.

She said she personally made sure that the public was given a chance to address redistricting when school board districts were redrawn after the last census (“The District’s districts,” RN&R, Sept. 1, 2011).

“And our actions and our words have reflected that belief system that every family and every child is valued.Not everybody believes that but this board believes it.”

Probably the most outspoken person on the role of race in the controversy is longtime civil rights activist Andrew Barbano, an NAACP officer who wrote in his Sparks Tribune column on July 31, “[School board member] Howard Rosenberg, who has fought discrimination all his life, stormed out of Tuesday’s board meeting in righteous rage. The suspended superintendent has uttered not one word to calm the waters. Playing the race card pays. Whenever former Reno City Manager Charles McNeely was getting well-deserved heat or wanted a raise, he would recruit local African Americans to show up at Reno City Hall. In all my years as a member, I never saw McNeely attend an NAACP meeting. I can understand opportunists playing the race card.”

Subsequently, Barbano sent a letter to Martinez, with a copy to Gov. Brian Sandoval: “Mr. Martinez, only you and the governor are in position to dampen this smoldering tinder. There is no evidence of ethnic or racial bias on [the part] of the school board. Playing the race card can be toxic. Will you issue a statement that racial/ethnic bias are not part of the current situation between you and the board of trustees and that such unfounded allegations have no place in this discussion?”

So far, Martinez has not spoken on the topic. Gutierrez has done so, however, telling a July 26 meeting, “This not a racial thing.”