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Clark County trustees oust Superintendent Jesus Jara

Updated October 28, 2021 - 10:37 pm

The Clark County School Board on Thursday voted 4-3 to terminate Superintendent Jesus Jara’s contract.

After two hours of public comment and a contentious debate among school trustees, the board voted to end Jara’s employment agreement “for convenience.” Trustees Danielle Ford, Irene Cepeda, Linda Cavazos and Lisa Guzman voted for removal, while Lola Brooks, Katie Williams and Evelyn Garcia Morales voted no.

Also Thursday, the board voted to table the agenda item about Cavazos’ role as board president. Cavazos voted no, and Williams wasn’t in attendance at that point.

It essentially means Cavazos remains president, but the item could be brought back at a future meeting.

Jara’s employment agreement was slated to run through Jan. 15, 2023. He had been on the job since 2018, and his annual salary was $320,000.

After the vote, Jara said that since his arrival his focus has never wavered “to improve the well-being and academic success of our students.”

He said some members of the board have micromanaged him and undermined his staff but noted he was dedicated to protecting his staff from “overreach and interference.”

“My focus on student well-being and academic improvement has not wavered,” Jara said. “Unfortunately, a majority of the trustees did not share that vision and this community and our children will suffer because of it.”

He asked to be excused for the evening and he left the meeting after the remarks.

Some audience members began yelling. Williams made pointed remarks toward Cavazos, who told her she was out of order.

Shortly thereafter, security guards and school district police headed into the lobby, where there was a reported disturbance. Cavazos asked for exit doors to be closed for safety. It quickly quieted down.

‘This isn’t working’

During the discussion about Jara’s contract, board attorney Mary-Anne Miller said that with termination for convenience, the board doesn’t have to cite any particular reason.

Without making any comments, Ford made a motion to terminate Jara’s contract. Guzman seconded the motion.

Brooks said some trustees won’t stop at anything until they get their way. She said part of her wants to encourage Jara to walk away because some of his bosses have made his job impossible.

The situation reflects poorly on the board, Brooks said, noting she can’t convince some of her peers that they’re on the same team.

The board has been largely ineffective this year, Brooks said. The one thing everyone can agree on is that “this isn’t working” and we should all do better, she added.

Ford interrupted Brooks’ remarks, saying there’s a lot of speculation and she wanted to call for the vote.

Cavazos told fellow board members not to interrupt one another and “we need to be adults in the room.”

Brooks made a motion to table the agenda item until Jan. 4, 2023.

Miller said a motion to table the agenda item takes precedence over the original motion.

Williams seconded the motion to table the item, but it failed 3-4, with Ford, Cepeda, Cavazos and Guzman opposed.

It’s the second time the board had considered terminating Jara’s contract. He has faced criticism over his erroneous statements to the board and state legislators, as well as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the decision to operate with 100 percent distance education for about a year starting in March 2020.

In July 2020, trustees voted 4-3 to adjourn a special meeting before getting to an item seeking to end Jara’s contract.

Then in May, trustees voted 4-3 to extend his contract, with Cavazos, Guzman and Ford voting against the motion. It followed a dispute over contact terms, with Jara’s representatives arguing it was in effect until 2023 and trustees saying it ended June 30 this year.

Public comments about Jara

About 35 people signed up in advance to provide a public comment regarding Jara’s contract and dozens more signed up at the meeting.

Second-grade teacher and National Education Association of Southern Nevada President Vicki Kreidel said that under Jara, the school district has a toxic culture ruled by fear and that the district is losing educators as a result.

High school teacher Sarah Comroe said the district needs to find a superintendent who cultivates a better climate in classrooms.

S.S. Rogers with the Ministers Alliance of Southern Nevada said that when Jara arrived on the job and he met him at an event, he told him: “I’m your friend if you do the right thing. But you have not been doing the right thing.”

Maria Nieto with the Mi Familia Vota organization said she wanted to urge the board to fire Jara. The culture of the school district has deteriorated and employees are under duress, she said.

But Jose Solorio, who was a trustee in the early 1990s, said his viewpoint is that Jara has been receptive to ideas from day one.

Jara has worked well with administrators, Solorio said, and when he talks about the superintendent to parents in the Latino community, “they are super proud” and see him as someone their children can look up to.

There’s a silent majority appreciative of what the superintendent has done, he said.

A few people from Mission High School — a district campus for students who are recovering from substance abuse — said Jara has done a lot for the school and has shown compassion for students.

Jim Frazee, a high school teacher and vice president of the Clark County Education Association teachers union, said Jara must be judged based on his performance, not politics.

If the board terminates the superintendent’s contract, it will set a chilling example and no-one who sits in that chair will take bold action, he said.

Walter Jones III said there’s education expertise right here in Las Vegas, but the school district wants to go everywhere else to hire superintendents.

The district needs someone who knows Nevada, he said. He said there’s too much bickering on the board, noting trustees need to think about students and employees.

Cavazos’ presidency

Immediately after the vote on Jara’s contact, the board considered the item about Cavazos as president, a post she has held since January. The board voted to table the item.

Cavazos was appointed to the board in 2017 and then elected in 2018 for a four-year term.

Many of the public commenters said they supported Cavazos, some saying she has maintained her composure and professionalism during difficult meetings.

But some in the audience said they were disturbed by how they say Cavazos has treated some public commenters at recent meeting and in social media posts.

During public comments about Cavazos’ presidency, she asked a public commenter to leave after he yelled out an allegation about Brooks.

Shortly thereafter, Williams — who wasn’t wearing a mask — started arguing with Cavazos, who told her she was out of order. She said she didn’t care about what Cavazos says and doesn’t work for her.

Some in the audience yelled “put your mask on” and others yelled “keep it off.”

Cavazos said she would note for the record that she asked Williams multiple times to put on a mask and that she refused. She said the board won’t take a recess. Williams left shortly thereafter.

Brooks released her letter to the Review-Journal on Saturday calling for a vote about Cavazos, in which she said Cavazos had reached out to principals to gain support for ousting Jara. She also alleged Cavazos leaked confidential information from a closed session to an employee union

In a Friday email, which is included with online School Board meeting materials, Williams requested an agenda item to consider removing Cavazos, saying she has “consistently and continuously undermined the will of the board by not collaborating with the superintendent and staff.”

Williams also alleged there’s “clear bias” in Cavazos’ motives, and that she has bullied other trustees and “steamrolled them into submission.”

Online meeting materials include a thread of emails from February through this month, including a few requests from Cavazos to meet with Williams related to social media concerns.

After arranging a time to meet in February, Williams emailed Cavazos later that month to express concerns with her performance as president.

Williams declined meetings Cavazos requested in August and earlier this month regarding social media issues, the emails show.

President says ouster move ‘retaliation’

At a news conference Wednesday, Cavazos said the motion to oust her from her position was “retaliation” for her support for the item to consider ending Jara’s contract.

She also said that a “set of circumstances” precipitated the agenda item to end Jara’s contract, but declined to discuss specifics ahead of Thursday’s meeting so as not to violate state open meeting laws.

Numerous interested parties weighed in prior to the meeting.

In an undated letter, members of Jara’s executive cabinet wrote to the trustees that the superintendent has its “broad, unwavering support.”

The letter said the officials are committed to Jara’s vision for student success and the district is “finally making progress by implementing practices and processes that promote equity, access and achievement for our students.”

Kris Engelstad of The Engelstad Foundation, also issued a statement supporting Jara, calling the trustees’ priorities “clearly and completely out of touch with the needs of the families and children throughout our community that depend on their decision-making.”

“There hasn’t been a single agenda item on student achievement in 2021,” she said. “What a miserable showcase of CCSD trustee priorities. … Instead, precious hours are being wasted on things like a vote to fire Superintendent Jara, who has worked as diligently as possible within this current system.”

Others said the dueling agenda items demonstrate that the divided School Board is more focused on politics than academic performance.

“What we’re seeing played out is all the more reason why we support a governance model change for the School Board,” John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association teachers union, told the Review-Journal on Wednesday.

In a statement late Wednesday, the Vegas Chamber urged the board not to move forward on “these divisive agenda items.”

“Stable and consistent leadership” is essential for students to succeed, “especially now as our local schools recover from the very adverse impacts of the pandemic on K-12 education,” the business organization said.

Some trustees have lost focus and instead of concentrating on student achievement and “significant staffing challenges,” they’re bringing forth agenda items that “demonstrate the ongoing misguided focus and distractions that have consumed the school district,” the chamber said.

‘An ally to students’

Members of the Youth Power Project and Make the Road Nevada issued a statement Thursday saying they’re “firmly opposed” to removing Cavazos as board president.

Kathia Sotelo, organizer of the Youth Power Project, said in the statement that Cavazos has been “an ally to students and has taken personal accountability and initiative to create important changes at CCSD.”

Student voices are now being prioritized at school board meetings thanks to Cavazos, Sotelo said.

Two members of the Youth Power Project, whose full names weren’t included in the statement, said they don’t feel heard or supported by Jara.

The board had other less dramatic but important matters before it on Thursday, including hearing the recommendations of a committee tasked with developing a district anti-racism policy and reviewing and possibly approving collective bargaining agreements with two employee unions.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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