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Washoe County school trustees expected to fire superintendent

Updated June 28, 2019 - 8:28 pm

RENO – A move to fire the Washoe County schools superintendent amid charges that she allowed confidential information to be leaked in an employee discrimination lawsuit is roiling the state’s second-largest public school system ahead of a Monday hearing to decide her fate.

The turmoil over Superintendent Traci Davis began in earnest two weeks ago when Board of Education members informed Davis of their intent to seek her dismissal. Since then, lawyers and school officials have traded accusations that have touched on allegations of deception, bad faith, subterfuge and possible racial bias. Davis is black in a district with only 2.5 percent black students.

The fracas, which could eventually end up being resolved in court, even prompted a partial shuttering of the district’s offices on Thursday and Friday, which the district said it did to avoid a potential workplace confrontation between the embattled superintendent and other district employees.

Davis is expected to be fired at Monday’s board hearing, her lawyer said Friday. That would make her the second consecutive superintendent to exit in that fashion. Her predecessor, Pedro Martinez, who brought Davis in from Clark County schools to serve as his No. 2 in 2012, was himself fired in 2014. He sued and later received a settlement for back pay and other benefits totaling approximately a half million dollars.

Her lawyer said the board has made up charges against Davis to fire her without having to pay a similar-sized settlement. Davis serves at the pleasure of the board under a contract that was most recently renewed in 2018.

“What the school district is trying to do is terminate her without cause but saying that it’s for cause,” said attorney William Peterson, who also represented Martinez when he was dismissed. The board’s accusations against Davis, he said, don’t fall within the conditions her contract sets forth as grounds for termination.

Board President Katy Simon Holland flatly rejected Peterson’s claim.

“As one trustee, I have been absolutely confident that there was gross negligence and substantial evidence to document that conclusion,” she said Friday.

Joins Washoe from Clark County

With 64,000 students and 4,600 staff, including 3,900 teachers, the Washoe district is second only to Clark County in size and has a general fund budget of about half a billion dollars. Prior to coming to Washoe in 2012, Davis was an up-and-comer in the Clark County School District, where she went from teacher to area superintendent during her 16-year tenure.

In Washoe, she has received merit-based and longevity pay increases since being named superintendent and her total 2018 compensation of nearly $448,000 included $341,000 in pay with the rest in benefits. Her current two-year contract runs to July 2020.

During her tenure, county voters, in 2016, approved a half-penny sales tax increase to fund school construction and repairs and other capital projects. In 2018, the district celebrated a record graduation rate, and at the end of the year, Davis’ annual review determined she was “meeting expectations.”

At the same time, however, Davis’s management style — brusque and confrontational, according to her detractors — has been blamed for sinking morale in the district and greater difficulty retaining experienced teachers.

Holland, the board president, acknowledged Friday she had differences with Davis of both opinion and management style, but said they were typical and incidental.

Davis, who took temporary leave under an agreement with the district following the June 13 meeting where she learned of the accusations against her, planned to return to work on Thursday as the dispute got more media attention and more details surfaced. That prompted the district to partly close offices, allowing district employees to work from home instead.

Holland said the acting superintendent took the action because several employees “felt intimidated and threatened by (Davis) and felt that she would be very disruptive.”

“We were not going to have armed guards at the entrance to our district office,” she said.

Grounds for the charges

On May 29, according to the district, lawyers received materials — emails, text messages and other documents — turned over as part of discovery in a pending discrimination case that led the district to accuse Davis of negligence. The district alleges that the documents show a subordinate to Davis, Byron Green, fed confidential information to the plaintiff in that lawsuit, Jenny Ricci Hunt, an employee Davis herself fired in 2018.

Green, the district’s chief of student services, and his husband, David Lasic, who served as Davis’ chief of staff, were fired by the acting superintendent after Davis took her leave.

Davis “was specifically told by district counsel in 2017 that there needs to be a firewall” so that Green couldn’t gain access to confidential information and to plug leaks, Holland said.

The documents provided in discovery stretch to more than 300 pages and were partially reviewed by the Review-Journal. Peterson, Davis’ attorney, said Friday nothing in the document dump implicates Davis in either direct or indirect disclosure of confidential information via the now-terminated subordinate.

“The district has not provided a single fact establishing any reason for termination for cause,” he wrote in a 12-page letter to the district dated Thursday.

He added that the district had rushed to judgment to put the blame on Davis and should instead bring in an outside agency to investigate the source of the leaks.

Monday’s hearing, set for 8 a.m., is expected to draw considerable public testimony but the board has set aside only 20 minutes for Davis and her attorney to make their case. Under her contract, she is not entitled to formal due process before the board.

Holland said the board has four options it can consider: retain Davis, retain her with disciplinary action, fire her with cause, or fire her without cause.

The matter will likely end up in district court if Davis is not retained or no settlement is reached.

“I think they’re just going to kick it up to the court,” Peterson said.

Contact Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-0661. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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