Much has happened in the Washoe County School District since the June primary election, including a troubling July spike in COVID-19 cases that led to concerns about school reopenings as well as school closures caused by the dense smoke from various wildfires that reached unhealthy levels.
While Washoe County School District (WCSD) leaders have weathered challenging curveballs since June, the future doesn’t look any easier as a budget crisis and the pandemic persist.
The remaining hopefuls for a seat on the Board of Trustees have been busy keeping up with day-to-day life in the throes of the pandemic while campaigning for their last shot for a seat on the board this term.
The primary election narrowed the pool by only one seat, making Kurt Thigpen the new District D Trustee with more than half of the vote against two other candidates. Six others remain, leaving three seats to fill in just over three weeks in the nonpartisan race.
Scott Kelley and Jeff Church are fighting it out over the District A seat, which mostly spans South Reno and includes Galena High School, Brown Elementary and Pine Middle School. Incumbent Angela Taylor faces network technician Matthew Montognese for the District E seat, which includes Hug and McQueen high schools, where both candidates graduated from. At-large District G is the largest district with a seat up for grabs, which covers the western half of the school district. Previous appointee to the seat Diane Nicolet faces engineer and CEO Craig Wesner for the spot.
In addition to the pandemic-related uncertainties, such as distance learning and mitigation procedures to prevent the spread of the virus, school board trustees responsible for a district with over 60,000 students will also face the 2021 legislative session in the spring following the July special session, which saw $166 million budget cuts for K-12 education.
Many candidates expressed concern and dissatisfaction with the perpetual underfunding of Nevada education, which is regularly ranked near last in the country.
School board trustees in Washoe County earn an annual salary of $4,800, which amounts to a little over $19,000 for a four-year term.
Tension continues to heighten in District A race
The race for the District A seat is undoubtedly the most contentious as tension between Kelley and Church continues to brew, and Kelley works to rebuild his reputation following his recent resignation from the board in late August.
Board of Trustees President Malena Raymond called for the resignation earlier this summer following a This is Reno article that detailed information about Kelley’s divorce, which contained allegations regarding his behavior and exposed he was operating fake social media accounts.
Upon his resignation, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to appoint former Incline Middle School Principal Sharon Kennedy to the seat until Jan. 3 when the general election winner will assume the role. Kelley remains on the ballot for the general election and hopes to resume the seat for a second term against Church, a retired Reno police sergeant.
Church said he is concerned about the “very serious” ethical implications brought forth by the court documents, specifically Kelley’s fake social media accounts, which were active accounts during the ex-trustee’s tenure on the school board.
Church sent Kelley a cease and desist letter in mid-September in which he demanded Kelley respond to allegations of violating the Nevada Code of Fair Campaign Practices by falsely campaigning as an active board member and active member of the armed forces, as reported by the Reno Gazette Journal.
Kelley denied he violated legal campaign practices to the RGJ and clarified he was no longer using outdated campaign materials from when he was a board member. He added that while he did serve in the U.S. Army and the Nevada National Guard, his website does not state he is an active member. He did not respond to Church’s concerns about using fake social media accounts during his tenure on the school board.
The Washoe Education Association withdrew its endorsement for Kelley as board member amid the allegations.
Just before the frenzy of his resignation, Kelley won 33 percent of votes in the primary and just over 2,000 more votes than Church who finished with 23 percent of votes.
Kelley has also pulled ahead in fundraising, ending the second quarter of his campaign with more than $2,000 raised, totaling more than $12,000 cumulatively. Kelley donated $1,500 of the second quarter fundraising to himself and received another $500 from the Associated General Contractors of America political action committee. Kelley has spent most of his contributions this quarter on advertising and for office supplies, with $576 cash on hand left.
Despite having raised more contributions for his campaign than Church, Kelley saw a significant decline of about $8,000 from the first quarter of fundraising.
Church raised a little over $1,000 during the second quarter from a single donor, totaling just over $3,000 cumulatively and ending the quarter with $2,400 for spending. Church spent just $200 on advertising for his campaign this quarter.
This is also Church’s second run for a seat on the school board since 2018 when he won the primary election by 277 votes, but lost the general election against current District F trustee Jacqueline Calvert by over 6,000 votes. Church said this will be his final run for the school board.
Church’s campaigning over the past few months has included leaving door hangers featuring his campaign for voters and participating in online candidate forums.
If elected to the board, Church said he wants to focus on taking care of the “fiscal tsunami” the school district faces amid overwhelming budget cuts to an already underfunded educational system. He suggested a 15 percent cut to administrative salaries and making tough personnel decisions as a starting point to balancing the budget.
He also wants to explore the idea of a live-in academy for at-risk students that could receive a better education with secure housing and providing teacher housing as an incentive to bring more teachers to the school district.
Church doesn’t hide his discontent regarding the state of education in the county and state.
“I think things are terrible. We're last in the nation. We're failing our kids and we have to do better and they think things are really good,” he said, drawing a contrast between himself and current board member Taylor and ex-board member Kelley.
Kelley said he has spent a lot of time since the primary going door to door to talk to voters, which most of the other candidates have largely refrained from because of the pandemic, in addition to participating in online candidate forums. However, Kelley said he wears a mask to visit peoples’ homes and stands at least the recommended six feet distance from their door.
As of now, he’s unsure of how his resignation will affect his chances at regaining his seat on the board.
“I resigned to protect my family's privacy and I also did not want to be a distraction to Washoe County School District staff,” Kelley said. “But if I were to win re-election and I would start January, by then my divorce will be over. And I think that I would be able to really focus the next four years on doing all that I can to improve public education.”
He noted that most voters he’s spoken to “didn’t care about the allegations,” which encouraged him that voters will focus on his previous record and accomplishments as trustee and his ideas.
If elected to the board for another term, Kelley would like to pursue the idea of changing the district’s bell schedule by delaying school start times and letting middle school and high school students sleep in a little bit longer in the mornings, a recommendation made by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
District E incumbent Taylor faces first-time candidate Montognese to keep her position for another term.
District E spans from Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) High School to Verdi Elementary School and includes Hug and McQueen high schools, where Taylor was student body president and Montognese played football, respectively.
Taylor leads the race in fundraising, having raised $800 this period and almost $9,000 total including her first quarter contributions. She has spent over $5,000 cumulatively and has just under $5,000 left for spending. She’s spent the most on office supplies and advertising this quarter with some additional funds spent on consulting and paid staff members.
Montognese raised $300 in the second quarter of his campaign and $1,700 in the third quarter, which he preemptively filed before the Oct. 15 deadline. In three quarters, Montognese has raised just over $2,000 cumulatively and has spent $1,500 on advertising and a single repayment to himself.
Despite her fundraising lead, Taylor said she thinks it’s going to be a close race in an interview with The Nevada Independent.
The incumbent wants to focus on three key points if re-elected: Keeping schools safe and effective amid the pandemic, which means improving the distance learning models and helping parents keep up with the changes along the way; improving funding for education; and improving and ensuring equity for all students, teachers and school district staff and elevating existing efforts for cultural competency and diversity.
She’s largely focused on her online presence while campaigning during a pandemic and participating in online candidate forums, but misses knocking on voters’ doors.
Taylor acknowledged certain decisions she’s supported in her tenure as trustee that she feels uncertain about in retrospect, such as increasing class size in order to avoid cutting teacher’s jobs during a budget shortfall. She also wishes the district had been more prepared to successfully implement distance learning for the new school year.
“So we made the decision as a board to adjust class sizes, go up one student for lower grades, after third grade and then two students for high school. I always think back about that because we have really large class sizes. Like man, could we have done that differently?” Taylor said.
But she acknowledges part of the job is making tough decisions that can’t please everyone.
For the next few weeks, Taylor said she’ll continue to “wear two hats” as a current trustee and a candidate.
“I'm looking forward to making as much voter contact as I can, if I can do it safely and certainly respecting everybody's boundaries because I think that's important,” Taylor said.
Taylor, the first Black woman to serve as a trustee on the board, was appointed to her seat in 2014 and was re-elected in 2016. She has worked in education for 30 years, including 20 years at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), where she earned a doctorate in educational leadership. She is currently the president and CEO of Guardian Quest Inc., a diversity and leadership training company.
Her opponent Montognese is a student himself, studying science and communication at Truckee Meadows Community College when he’s not working as a network technician and coaching little league baseball.
Through conversations with his professors, his children who are students in the school district and their friends about their concerns regarding education, Montognese created a list of things to focus on as a board member, if elected. This includes helping students understand their inherent gifts and talents, expanding future options for students other than the higher education pipeline, increasing civic duty and community engagement work among students and compensating teachers fairly.
The candidate has also taken a strong stance against increasing class sizes, something his opponent voted for previously as a board member.
In regards to the rebuilding the school district faces amid the budget shortfall caused by the pandemic, Montognese sees the recovery process as inclusive of all the stakeholders.
“We need to see where we have deficits. We need to find out what it's gonna cost both mentally and emotionally to solve these problems. We need to ask people where we're having the biggest issues — we have to ask our educators, our counselors, our kids, our parents. We just need to be very transparent and ask a lot of questions and then be proactive and responsive,” he said.
Montognese also hopes to increase trust between the community and the school district and to increase the favorability of the board in the eyes of the community.
“I'm here to represent the voter,” he said. “I'm here to represent the community. And I can only do that by providing a trust where they know that I'm going to represent them, their ideas, their thoughts, and protect their rights. And by doing this, we also open up and unlock a very, a very valuable piece of our community.”
In addition to participating in online candidate forums, Montognese spends some time on the weekends putting campaign signs up around town and fielding calls or emails from voters whenever he can.
At-large District G
Nicolet and Wesner’s names proceed to the November ballot from a primary pool of five candidates for the district seat that spans the western half of the school district and includes North Lake Tahoe.
Nicolet pushed ahead in the primary, despite Wesner’s significant fundraising lead, with 44 percent of the vote, narrowly missing the over 50 percent threshold to be named the outright winner for the seat. Wesner finished the primary with 25 percent of the vote.
However, Wesner holds the fundraising lead with over $6,000 fundraised cumulatively and $3,500 in the second quarter. He finished the quarter with almost $3,000 left for spending. The candidate spent the bulk of his funds on advertising, specifically with more than $3,000 spent with CGS Direct, a marketing company that Mayor Hillary Schieve and Reno City Council Ward 1 candidate J.D. Drakulich have also employed for their campaigns.
Wesner received $500 contributions from Nevada Tri Partners, a collaboration of developers in the South Reno area, and the General Contractors of America political action committee, which also donated to current District G Trustee Katy Simon Holland’s campaign in 2016 and other Republican candidates such as Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen and state Sen. Pete Goicoechea.
Nicolet loaned herself almost $1,300 this quarter, ending the quarter with over $2,000 cumulatively. She has over $700 for spending left and has spent a little over $1,000 on advertising, which were payments reimbursed to herself.
Nicolet acknowledged her “tight budget” in an interview with The Nevada Independent, clarifying that she declines monetary contributions from business organizations or political action committees, but has accepted a small amount from friends and family.
“I feel very strongly about keeping my obligations to the voters and to the students and to the strategic plan for the Washoe County School District and my constituents in district G,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t want to feel “beholden” to the organizations donating to her campaign.
The tight budget has been enough to cover the costs of hundreds of mailing cards and small yard signs for her campaign.
Nicolet wants to focus on increasing funding per student, decreasing class size, develop personalized education plans for students and limit the administrative duties that fall on teachers, so they can focus on educating.
Regarding the budget crisis the school district faces, Nicolet said working together to mark priorities is key.
“We all have to work together to figure out our priorities. What can we do without? And what are the non-negotiables? What can we put in a band? Those things that we really want to have, but right now we can hold them in a band for the next phase, while we continue to reinvigorate our economy and ourselves, our psyches, our emotional wellbeing,” she said.
Nicolet was once appointed to the District G seat for 9 months after then-Trustee Barbara McLaury announced her resignation. Furthermore, Nicolet has been the director of the Truckee Meadows Community College E.L. Cord Child Care Center for the past 24 years and has a doctorate in educational leadership from UNR.
Wesner has focused on fundraising for his campaign since June, putting up campaign signs through town and participating in online candidate forums so voters recognize him and understand his priorities.
He said he feels good about his campaign so far, but noted he has a strong opponent and believes it will be a tight race.
Wesner highlighted the importance of restructuring the board’s “organizational culture,” which he noted as something he’s been successful in creating strongly in his engineering firm.
“Putting people together, creating a good culture where we all are driven by what our expectations are, are respected for the value of the input that we put into it towards achieving our goals. And, as a result, we were very successful, we’re a high achieving firm. I would like to bring that to the district,” he said, noting that the district has poor morale and high turnover — signs of a poor organizational culture.
Wesner also noted the need for a “robust” distance learning program that can guarantee a smoother experience for students and teachers while ensuring students can still receive a quality education remotely.
Regarding the upcoming 2021 legislative session in the spring, Wesner said he’s slowly building relationships with legislators and believes education needs to be funded at a higher level, with the goal to land in a “national median” instead of hitting the bottom year after year.
He also noted the best way to achieve that goal is to increase community support for the district “that doesn’t stand real high in the minds of our general public here in Reno,” adding that improving the impression of the school district has to come first and through culture reorganization.
Echoing other candidate’s opinions, Wesner said there needs to be an expansion of the options and career opportunities for post-graduate high school students other than college, which he noted is “not practical.” He hopes to see a greater development in the technical career training programs offered in the area.
Meanwhile, Nov. 3 looms closer and the candidates continue working on their final stretch of campaigning before they discover who will take the open school board seats during a tumultuous time for the school district.
“I'm looking forward to November 3rd so that I can get some sleep,” Wesner said.