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Douglas County schools’ legal budget set to rise 266% under Joey Gilbert’s fees

The decision to increase the budget for legal fees comes as one school board member has resigned following conflict among trustees.
Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
K-12 EducationLocal GovernmentRural Nevada
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The Douglas County School Board is preparing to increase its annual budget for legal fees from $123,000 to $450,000, according to materials for the board’s Tuesday afternoon meeting. 

The 266 percent increase reflects the school district’s skyrocketing legal fees under new counsel Joey Gilbert, a far-right politician and attorney based in Reno who last year finished second in the Republican primary for governor. 

The board — run by a majority of conservative members in a deep-red county 50 miles south of Reno — voted in July to hire Gilbert, and has since seen its legal fees rise precipitously. Including his firm’s latest bill set for approval Tuesday, Gilbert has charged the district $170,000 — exceeding the district’s annual legal budget in fewer than five months. The district serves more than 5,000 students.

Even after reducing hourly rates for certain services and providing the district with a credit of more than $32,000 in October, Gilbert again notched a hefty bill in November of more than $40,000, which includes his $7,500 monthly retainer. Gilbert’s charges have included thousands of dollars for responding to Open Meeting Law complaints and public records requests. The November total is well above charges from the board’s prior counsel, Maupin, Cox & LeGoy, which had represented the district for more than 20 years and has experience in education law. In November 2022, that firm charged the district about $18,000.

Board President Susan Jansen has previously said she lost faith in the prior counsel for not fighting for the board and combatting “woke agenda things” — but believes Gilbert brings a more aggressive approach to the table. 

Tensions over Gilbert’s costly fees have underpinned a broader wave of turmoil on the school board. Prior to hiring Gilbert, the board pursued and tabled a policy that would have blocked transgender students from certain locker rooms, bathrooms and sports teams.

After months of conflict between board leaders and Superintendent Keith Lewis, who had worked in the district for more than 20 years, the board voted in early October to keep him in place, only for Lewis to submit his resignation three weeks later. The board on Tuesday is also set to approve a job description and hiring process for the next superintendent.

Some board members have protested decisions made by the majority, criticizing Gilbert’s hiring and efforts to change the board’s bylaws.

School board resignation

During the meeting, the board is set to approve Trustee Tony Magnotta’s resignation. 

In his resignation letter dated Dec. 7, Magnotta said that since January and the installation of the new trustees, which includes Jansen, Board Clerk David Burns and Katherine Dickerson, he has felt his vote and his voice aren’t “seriously concerned.” He also claimed he’s been “met with harassment and veiled threats” to get on the board majority’s side to present a united front to the public. 

He also referenced Gilbert’s hiring, and the loss of two key administrators, including Lewis. During a Monday phone call, Magnotta said he felt he should step away from the board in part due to health reasons. 

“I regret the need to step down before my term is complete, but I cannot, in good conscience, continue to serve on this board while opposing many of the agendas,” Magnotta said in his letter. 

Douglas County School Board Trustee Tony Magnotta at a Friday, Oct. 6 school board meeting where trustees considered firing Superintendent Keith Lewis. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Jansen told The Nevada Independent in a Dec. 9 emailed statement that no one on the board harassed or intimated Magnotta, though Magnotta said “she’s a freaking liar.” 

Under state law, a vacancy on the school board must be filled by appointment by the remaining members. According to the agenda, the board will begin the process of appointing a new trustee at its next regular board meeting in January. 

The appointment will likely grant greater power to the board’s current majority — a group that has also sparred with a subset of teachers and parents who have banded together at board meetings in red shirts to voice their grievances with the board’s officers, particularly Jansen.

The conflict between the two sides is likely to run through next year’s school board elections, as multiple leaders in that group have organized a political action committee called We Deserve a Better Board.

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