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Douglas County School Board reverses course, keeps superintendent in place

The latest meeting showed the fraction in the relationship between the school board, superintendent and the community.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education
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In a raucous, late night special meeting Friday, the Douglas County School Board voted 4-3 to keep Keith Lewis as the district’s superintendent despite months of mounting tensions between him and the school board. 

Those who voted against the motion to terminate Lewis’ contract were Vice President Doug Englekirk and Trustees Linda Gilkerson, Tony Magnotta and Carey Kangas. Board President Susan Jansen, Clerk David Burns and Katherine Dickerson voted in support of the proposed termination. 

Lewis wasn’t present at the meeting. His lawyer, Tom Beko, said Lewis had a previous commitment with his daughter at Boise State University. Lewis and Beko did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Friday night’s meeting. 

Days before the meeting, Lewis said that the proposed termination was an agreement between him and the board, something Beko repeated at the meeting. 

Beko said the discussion to terminate Lewis’ contract came after the district’s new legal counsel, Joey Gilbert, asked Lewis during “a rather contentious district meeting” if he could effectively manage the district in light of the “fractured” board. 

“Mr. Lewis' candid response was that he honestly felt that he couldn't, that it was going to be so difficult at that point in time,” Beko said. “Mr. Gilbert invited him to begin the process to explore the best means by which to try to get the district back on course.” 

The proposal to terminate Lewis created a split in the district that serves about 5,300 students in a deep-red county 50 miles south of Reno. Lewis, hired as district superintendent in 2020, has for months feuded with several recently elected trustees over proposed policy changes excluding transgender students from certain bathrooms and sport teams, and the hiring of Gilbert as the district’s legal counsel, despite his lack of experience in education law.

Records obtained by The Nevada Independent show Gilbert’s law firm submitted a set of invoices to the district Sept. 21 totaling more than $74,000 for fees incurred primarily over the previous month — much higher than the average monthly cost of the board’s previous counsel.

Lewis’ supporters — including parents, Douglas County graduates and other long-time community members, many dressed in red — packed the library of Douglas High School where the meeting was held. The school’s cafeteria served as overflow space for those who couldn’t get seats inside the library. They carried signs with messages thanking Lewis and criticizing the board for trying to push out Lewis and for hiring Gilbert. 

Trustees Kangas, Magnotta and Gilkerson cast doubt on the idea that termination was truly what Lewis wanted and instead suggested it was the result of trustees who wanted him out. 

“This could be, in my opinion, the single worst thing that has ever happened to Douglas County School District (DCSD),” Kangas said of the motion to terminate Lewis. “Superintendent Lewis is the heart and soul of this school district. The action today is not what I want. It's not what our community wants. It's not what DCSD wants or needs.” 

The three trustees who support Lewis said they believed the board’s majority was attempting to push out Lewis for political control. 

“Could it be that he refused to follow directives outside what has been approved by the board as a whole?” Gilkerson asked. “Could it be that he refused to follow their agenda and break the law?” 

Gilkerson said she was concerned about what could come next for district books, curriculum, teachers and students who do not align with the majority’s conservative and Christian beliefs if Lewis was fired. 

After about three hours of public comment, largely in favor of Lewis, Englekirk, who wasn’t present in the room but participated via Zoom, said he was “deeply torn.” 

“I don’t really see a viable way forward, but since this has been forced on me, I think what needs to happen is for us a board to work together with our new legal counsel and our current superintendent to move forward together,” he said. 

Dickerson said she voted in favor of terminating Lewis because didn't see how the district could move forward with the superintendent after he said he couldn’t work with the board. 

“The reason that I [voted] yay is I feel in my heart of hearts that Keith really feels that it's a burden for him to try to work with a board that does not share some of his views, and it was really only because I thought it's what Keith wants,” Dickerson said. 

Kangas urged his fellow board members to put their politics aside. 

“This is no place for it,” he said. “I told you I was a Republican, I am conservative, but you don't bring those types of things into public education.” 

During public comment, many also called for the resignation of Gilbert, Dickerson, Englekirk, Jansen and Burns, with some calling them right-wing extremists. Others said they have voted for conservative politicians such as Gov. Joe Lombardo and Gilbert, but didn’t agree with the proposal to fire Lewis.  

Parent Stephanie Christensen said Lewis helped her when she had a concern about an assignment her son received that included topics about transgender people and self-harm. 

“He protected my kids and my family's conservative values,” she said. “He is in no way woke or liberal.” 

Jen Spore, a parent of two students and former teacher, said though she supported the board’s decision to keep Lewis as superintendent, she wondered whether she needed to pull her kids out of the district. 

Virginia Nisse, one of the nine speakers who was in favor of terminating Lewis, said he has not been a good superintendent to the conservative board members since their election, and derided Lewis’ supporters as “paid propaganda activists.” 

“These trustees are the only stop gap between what is occurring in schools now and school boards across the nation,” Nisse said. 

Another parent, May Hyatt, urged the public to stay engaged with what’s happening with the school board. 

“This board is still broken,” she said. “We still deserve a better board. There's still work to be done.” 

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