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School board says ‘no’ to Jara payout; contract termination talks next

Updated February 8, 2024 - 8:09 pm

The Clark County School Board failed a motion Wednesday to approve Superintendent Jesus Jara’s resignation and a contract amendment, but later gave an OK to negotiate a contract termination.

After a lengthy discussion in a packed meeting room at the Henderson City Council Chambers, trustees voted 3-4 on a motion seeking to approve Jara’s resignation and a contract amendment that would allow for a payout.

Trustees Irene Bustamante Adams, Brenda Zamora, Lisa Guzman and Linda Cavazos voted “no” on the motion.

After an hourlong recess — which came two hours into the meeting — the board moved on to a second agenda item, “termination for convenience” of the superintendent’s contract.

It means they don’t have to give a reason for his termination. Under Jara’s current contract language, trustees would have to pay out the remainder of his contract through June 2026.

Trustees voted 5-2 to negotiate the conditional termination of Jara’s contract for convenience, with a request for the board’s attorney to negotiate alternative terms. Cavazos and Zamora voted “no.”

Cavazos asked whether negotiations will be for a monetary sum or no payment of taxpayer funds.

“I don’t know,” said Guzman, who made the motion. She said she thinks they’re entering into negotiations.

Cavazos asked if they could bring it back as an agenda item as a termination for cause. Guzman responded that it’s not her motion but told Cavazos that she could make that motion if she would like.

Trustees took no action on an agenda item about whether to appoint Deputy Superintendent Brenda Larsen-Mitchell as the next top leader.

Jara remains in his role until the matter is settled.

A large number of meeting attendees left the meeting after that.

Jara submitted a resignation letter last week after leading the nation’s fifth-largest school district since 2018. His last day is Feb. 21.

His tenure has been tumultuous, and he has faced criticism over topics such as lagging student achievement, his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, teacher contract negotiations and presenting erroneous statements to state legislators.

Jara was not at Wednesday’s meeting.

‘A mutual agreement’

At the start of consideration of the first agenda item about Jara’s resignation and a contract amendment, Board President Evelyn Garcia Morales said the item was brought by three trustees.

After questions by trustees about who was involved, they were later named as Garcia Morales, Guzman and Lola Brooks.

Guzman voted in 2021 to fire Jara, while Garcia Morales and Brooks were on the side of keeping the superintendent.

Garcia Morales said she was personally concerned with the “ongoing vitriol and disrespect that some people in the community have for Jara.”

She said Jara was asked to “consider a mutual agreement” to help him step aside and allow the school district to focus on moving forward.

The item doesn’t have to be contentious at all, Garcia Morales said.

The proposal allows the board to continue to focus on student outcomes and stabilize the district, she said.

Brooks later said that Jara was the person who was approached about resigning and that he is willing to stay until 2026 when his contract expires.

Guzman said that it was something that was well thought out and they’re not doing it just because someone called for it.

She later said that Garcia Morales brought her the issue and asked if she would be willing to have a fresh start and move forward.

Guzman said she agreed and noted that’s what her community has been asking for. She said she doesn’t want anyone to think it was a “backdoor deal.”

“It wasn’t,” Guzman said. “It was very conscious.”

She said about being approached with the proposal: “To be honest, I felt like I was finally being heard.”

Guzman said she embraced the opportunity.

“I feel like this is a pathway forward for us,” she said.

Brooks said that when the agenda item was posted, there was chatter about it being a repeat of the board’s previous actions.

“The board has a reputation and we’re trying to do better and this is a show of that,” she said.

Two factions of the board came together as a unifying act, she said.

Brooks said she thinks Jara has been a “convenient scapegoat” for some long-standing issues, also noting the item is an “act of kindness.”

Non-voting trustee Adam Johnson asked Garcia Morales about who initiated the conversation about Jara’s resignation.

It became obvious last year that there were calls by state legislative leadership for Jara to resign, Garcia Morales said, adding there were a lot of personal attacks toward the superintendent and herself.

“Answer the question,” some audience members shouted.

Garcia Morales responded, “It was a mutual decision” and that “the pressure to ask him to leave was significant.”

Johnson said the order of operations is important in this situation. The final decision was mutual, “but someone comes to someone first.”

Garcia Morales said she approached two other trustees to discuss the item and because of the Open Meeting Law, they weren’t able to have a discussion with other members.

A closed-door session with all trustees and led by the board’s attorney took place before the agenda items were posted later that day.

Board attorney Nicole Malich said she was approached by Garcia Morales about three trustees who were interested in putting items on the agenda. She said she had already received Jara’s resignation letter.

Cavazos said that the allegation is that several secret backdoor meetings occurred and that doesn’t sit well with the community.

She said she didn’t know until Brooks’ remarks that the superintendent was approached about resigning.

Trustee comments

Cavazos said she’s willing to accept Jara’s resignation, but with no payout whatsoever.

She also said there are issues of transparency and accountability — remarks that were met with applause from the audience.

Cavazos later said that she’s grateful the community showed up to the meeting.

She also said there’s a reason why there’s a contract with the superintendent. She said she doesn’t see it as a “conditional resignation,” but as a demand.

“This is not a severance package,” Cavazos said, noting that would have been agreed upon by all trustees.

The agenda items were put together by three trustees — not the entire board, she said.

She read a comment that she received from an educator questioning why the superintendent should be allowed to slide out of the district with a big payout when teachers and support staff can’t.

The educator is afraid there will be close to 2,000 teacher vacancies this fall if the board does something like this, Cavazos said, urging fellow trustees to listen to community members.

Trustee Katie Williams said it’s important to know that the district has been “under a lot of duress” during the three years she has been on the board.

She said she hopes they’ll move forward from this.

Non-voting trustee Ramona Esparza-Stoffregan said she was hoping the appointed members would have a more inclusive voice and noted that hasn’t been provided and has been restricted.

But the appointed members do have a responsibility in a fiduciary sense, she said.

Esparza-Stoffregan said she wanted to bring the board back to what’s important: students.

The money from the payout could be used to employ an estimated eight social workers, five teachers at the top of the pay scale or 12 support staff, she said.

Esparza-Stoffregan said the board should pause and do due diligence. “Why are we rushing?”

Non-voting trustee Dane Watson said, “The community is here tonight” and has spoken loud and clear that they want the board to accept Jara’s resignation but not approve a payout.

Zamora said that Jara’s resignation and contract amendment shouldn’t be one agenda item and joining it like that creates a lack of transparency.

Non-voting trustee Lisa Satory said she’d love nothing more than to part ways with Jara, but she feels he should be held accountable to his contract.

Bustamante Adams said she would accept the resignation but “cannot stomach the amount.” She also called for a little extra time to ensure the board can understand the conditions.

The board needs to be swift and decisive, and to “cut our loss and move forward” and that will take a lot of courage, she said.

Jara’s contract

Jara’s resignation letter doesn’t include a reason for his departure.

Officials from the Clark County Education Association teachers union said last week that the timing is suspicious and pointed to its pending court petition over Jara’s social media account records.

Also, the U.S. and Nevada departments of education are investigating the district’s use of federal COVID-19 relief money for recruiting trips to beach destinations.

The proposed amendment to Jara’s contract that trustees rejected would have allowed him to provide only provide seven days’ notice of his resignation instead of 90.

The proposed amendment also called for giving the superintendent a lump sum severance payment equal to one year’s salary and benefits.

The amount wasn’t disclosed, but Jara’s yearly salary is $395,000. He would also get paid for unused vacation and sick days.

Previously, Jara’s contract noted that if he resigned, he’d only be paid only through his last day.

The school board has attempted to fire Jara a couple of times over the years.

Most recently, the board voted 4-3 in 2021 to terminate his contract “for convenience,” meaning they didn’t need to provide a reason, but reversed course the following month.

CCEA survey

The Clark County Education Association issued a press release Thursday before the meeting with results of a survey it conducted related to Jara’s resignation.

The union, which represents more than 16,000 licensed employees, said it surveyed nearly 6,000 teachers over three days.

Of the respondents, 94 percent said “no” to a question asking, “Should the CCSD Trustees buyout the Superintendent’s resignation request for close to $500,000?”

In total, 80 percent said “no” to a question asking, “Do you have confidence in Brenda Larsen Mitchell’s leadership?” and 82 percent said “no” to a question asking, “Should Brenda Larsen Mitchell be appointed Superintendent by CCSD Trustees?”

“It is time for CCSD Trustees to do the right thing and listen to the community and teachers,” the union wrote in the release. “Do not pass the deal that is being presented tonight. Jara needs to be relieved of his duties pending the outcome of ongoing investigations and the Trustees must be transparent and have an open process to recruit a new Superintendent through a nationwide search.”

The union called on the school board to terminate Jara, appoint an interim superintendent while a nationwide search is conducted for a permanent leader and to rescind a recent policy change that prevents four new appointed trustees from being able to make motions.

Public comments

The board heard about nearly two hours of public comments about three agenda items related to the superintendent’s resignation. It also received dozens of pages of written public comments.

Kamilah Bywaters, president of the Las Vegas Alliance of Black School Educators and a school board candidate, began her remarks by saying: “First and foremost, where is Superintendent Jara?”

She said the community has sat through the trauma of his leadership for years.

Bywaters said it’s disrespectful to tell the community about interpersonal conflicts when many have tried to have conversations with Jara.

Parent and school board candidate Anna Binder said the community deserves to have Jara’s presence in the meeting room and it’s concerning to have a huge discussion without him present.

School social worker Amanda Simons said Jara needs to be held accountable for his actions, which have created a massive amount of damage to the community.

There are many areas where Jara has failed the community, Simons said, adding that one of those areas is employee engagement and retention.

Jim Frazee, a high school teacher and vice president of the teachers union, said he adamantly opposes the “buyout scheme.”

He said he applauds Jara for coming to the realization that his time at the school district has come to an end.

Jara’s careless, self-serving actions on social media are about to catch up with him, Frazee said.

He said he believes Jara, who proposed an “outrageous and extravagant buyout,” could count on the board’s subservience.

Vicki Kreidel, an elementary school reading teacher and president of the National Education Association of Southern Nevada, said she doesn’t have a problem with Jara resigning, but he has a contract.

It was a document he had an active part in creating and he agreed to all of the terms, Kreidel said.

Many educators don’t believe he should be rewarded, she said.

Jara should be allowed to leave, but not with more of the district’s money and every penny is needed to support students, Kreidel said.

“This action is not good use of the district’s funds,” she said.

Government and business leaders weigh in

During a closing public comment period, Henderson Mayor Michelle Romero said quality education is of utmost importance to residents and businesses in Henderson.

Choosing the next superintendent is a critical decision, she said, and that more of the same is unacceptable.

Romero also said trustees voted on an “unlawful policy” two weeks ago that silences the voices of appointed trustees and that goes against the legislative intent of the hybrid school board law.

There are excellent teachers who deserve a superintendent who will encourage them to do their best work, she said.

The prosperity of the community hangs in the balance and students deserve nothing less, Romero said.

Henderson Councilwoman Carrie Cox also provided a public comment.

Mary Beth Sewald, president and CEO of the Vegas Chamber, said that for the next permanent superintendent to be successful, the school board must conduct a thorough and comprehensive national search.

The district needs the best possible person and someone with a proven track record, she said, and the search shouldn’t be limited by geographical restrictions.

It would be unconscionable and a disservice to students if the school board fails to do a search, Sewald said.

“Our entire community is watching,” she said.

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