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Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara discusses the school budget during a news conference on Thursday, May 9, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara abruptly removed a trustee from serving on two committees.

Another trustee requested that a clergy member be present during her one-on-one meetings with the district’s top leader.

And a third trustee wanted more answers about what exactly the Nevada Department of Education needed to approve concerning school reopening plans.

These are some of the situations documented in emails between Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara and the three trustees who called a special board meeting to discuss his recent actions and employment. The emails — exchanged from June 1 through July 15 and obtained through a public records request — offer a glimpse into the escalating tensions between Jara and a trio of his bosses. Trustees Linda Young, Danielle Ford and Linda Cavazos requested the meeting, which will take place Wednesday afternoon.

The trustees’ request came on the heels of controversy surrounding Assembly Bill 2, which would have redistributed unspent dollars from individual schools. After Jara tried to deflect responsibility for the bill, Gov. Steve Sisolak, state Superintendent Jhone Ebert and legislative leaders publicly admonished his actions — thrusting him into a negative spotlight amid an already challenging time in education. 

And emails show the discord carried over internally, particularly between him and Ford. But other issues were bubbling over at the same time.

Clark County School Board of Trustee Danielle Ford during an oath of office ceremony on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Debate over bill testimony

It started with an email from Assemblywoman Selena Torres to Ford on July 8. Torres asked for clarification about school strategic budgets after she “struggled to get a complete answer” from Jara. Ford, in turn, sent the superintendent an email with questions about the so-called carryover funds that would have been affected by AB2. 

Brad Keating, the district’s director of governmental relations, replied with answers to the questions and noted that he — not Jara — would be testifying on the bill. That answer did not sit well with Ford.

“You are the Face of the District, and it is crucial that as superintendent, you act properly and respectfully during the legislative session,” Ford wrote Jara in an email July 11, the same day the bill was set for a legislative hearing. “You should be willing and ready to testify to the assembly and senate and answer as many questions as they need.”

She went on to say an “absent superintendent” could cause state lawmakers to “lose trust” in the school district and cut funding.

Her demand seemed to irk Jara.

“Brad is very capable and his entire job is to represent CCSD in Carson City,” he wrote in a reply email. “As publicly stated multiple times, I work for the Board of Trustees, not one individual member; and I take direction from the entire board when provided direction at publicly noticed meetings.”

But Ford wasn’t the only trustee who wanted Jara to testify. Cavazos also sent him an email that day. 

“I hope you will reconsider your stance on the testimony, and oppose this bill personally,” Cavazos wrote July 11. “Due to your considerable media presence, and your position, I feel that there would be considerably more impact if you testified yourself, and our CCSD principals/SOT’s would feel very supported.”

The terse exchange about the special session, however, wasn’t the only indication of trouble brewing between Ford and Jara. Weeks earlier, on June 26, the superintendent informed Ford via email that he was removing her from the Teacher/Retention Committee and the Communications Advisory Committee. 

Jara didn’t elaborate about his decision during a phone interview Tuesday, aside from saying “one board member was enough to get the input of the board.” Trustee Irene Cepeda sits on the Teacher/Retention Committee, he said, while Cavazos serves on the Communications Advisory Committee. Ford, who previously served alongside her colleagues on those committees, did not return a request for comment.

Clark County School Board Trustee Linda Young during a meeting in Las Vegas on March 1, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Anger over race issues

Emails between Jara and Young, meanwhile, detail a relationship shrouded in mistrust and strained by race-related issues. 

On June 18, Jara sent Young an email announcing that Joe Caruso, executive director of the district’s Community Services Department, would also attend their one-on-one meetings going forward. The need for a witness, Jara explained in his message, boiled down to “miscommunication and lack of clarity” during their meetings.

“This will be an attempt to maintain a professional working relationship with you as a Trustee,” Jara wrote in the email. “I will also be communicating with you via-email and with a witness in order to complete official CCSD business.”

Young responded within an hour, first asking to have “another selected trustee” at the meetings. Two minutes later, she sent a second email requesting the presence of “Reverend Rogers and Cindy Krohn,” the latter of whom is the school board’s executive assistant.

“I find very little follow through and follow up information on my requests,” Young, a veteran trustee who will complete her third and final term this year, wrote in her first reply email. “I would like all meetings taped and transcribed.”

Jara replied the next morning, saying he would speak with Board President Lola Brooks about attending the one-on-one meetings or assigning the vice president to do so. But he declined to allow the reverend to attend because he’s not a district staff or board member. The superintendent also noted that “the perception of lack of follow through may be that I am following board policy and only respond to request(s) made by the entire board.”

The exchange further unraveled from there.

Young fired off a blistering email, rejecting Jara’s offer to include Brooks in the meetings and accusing him of ignoring her District C community. 

“You have never spoken up for the District C Community or me as a trustee,” she wrote in an email June 19. “You allow racist practices or a lack of black representation or other staff of color to persist in the CCSD. It is not necessary for us to meet at all, if you want to take that attitude or approach.”

Young pointed out the significance of the date — Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — and said Jara and other district employees need implicit bias training.

“Everything is always about you and your purported leadership,” she wrote. 

Jara defended himself against the accusations, rattling off a list of efforts he initiated to reduce inequities such as digging into student achievement data, changing magnet school criteria to foster more diversity among students, and directing more Title I money to the neediest schools. The superintendent said he’s not sure what prompted Young’s accusations.

“I can’t speak for her,” he said.

When reached by text message Tuesday, Young said she didn’t want to discuss her emails with Jara. Instead, Young wrote, “I’m hoping we can all come together and respect each other’s experiences and be supportive of the educational challenges that await us and the children.”

Linda Cavazos, 66, is sworn in as the new Clark County school trustee representing District G on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. (Jackie Valley/The Nevada Independent)

A rocky reopening planning process

Challenges created by COVID-19 — and confusion surrounding the reopening planning process — dominated recent email correspondence between Cavazos and Jara. In particular, Cavazos sought clarity about what the Nevada Department of Education needed to approve.

“I don’t want an inadvertent miscommunication or interpretation to result in our not being able to meet legal requirements for publicly posting this meeting,” Cavazos wrote in an email July 13. 

Days earlier, the school board had given provisional approval for three reopening plans — full time in-person instruction, distance learning and a hybrid model — but uncertainty remained about whether state or local authorities could make the final decision. Ultimately, it was determined that the state education department only needed to approve a calendar adjustment related to professional development. 

Cavazos also stressed the urgency of needing to make a reopening decision in her email to Jara on July 13.

“With the COVID numbers continuing to spike, and with no employee survey out yet, the anxiety among principals and teachers is becoming even worse,” she wrote. “Additionally, with other large districts such as San Diego, Phoenix, and LA beginning school completely online, we are facing a lot of questions regarding our final plan.”

On July 15, Jara informed Cavazos that he wanted to schedule a meeting with her, board counsel and Board President Lola Brooks “to discuss a couple of items."

That meeting never happened, though. The next day, July 16, Cavazos submitted her request for a special board meeting to discuss Jara’s conduct with AB2 and representations he made about the school reopening approval process. Ford and Young filed similar requests, meeting the threshold required to prompt such a meeting.

The agenda for the special meeting includes discussion and possible action on those two topics. A third agenda item leaves open the possibility that trustees could terminate Jara’s employment contract. The wording is “termination for convenience,” which differs from “termination for cause” because trustees wouldn’t have to prove anything. But if they went that route, the district would have to pay Jara through the end of his contract, which doesn’t expire until the end of June 2021. His yearly salary is $320,000.

“This was a very hard decision to make to even ask for this meeting,” Cavazos said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I don’t take it lightly at all.”

Cavazos said she doesn’t want the special meeting to devolve into an endless circle of finger-pointing, nor be solely focused on the possibility of termination. The three trustees’ call for a special meeting, however, triggered emotional responses from community members, educators and union leaders. The debate about the meeting and Jara’s future unleashed personal attacks on social media over the last week and a half.

“That’s not what I’m looking for,” she said. “I’m looking for kind of a robust discussion about how these events have had an effect. What effect have they had on families?”

Jara called the circumstances “unfortunate” but said he hopes the meeting concludes with more attention placed on planning for distance learning. Last week, the school board decided students would begin the upcoming year with virtual instruction because of rising COVID-19 cases.

“I think we just need to focus on our children and what school is going to look like,” he said.

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