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OPINION: Douglas County’s messy school superintendent search implodes

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

Nevada’s petri dish of political experimentation is once again on display in bucolic Douglas County. As has happened often in recent years, the mad scientists of reactionary conservatism have made a mess of the laboratory.

The controversy this time swirls around the selection of a new superintendent of public schools. The attempt to drag former Stockton, California, school superintendent John Ramirez Jr. across the finish line despite troubling unanswered questions and undeniable controversies has made his supporters, and especially Douglas County School Board President David Burns, look particularly bad.

The Ramirez move made the school board’s decision in August 2023 to hire super-Trumper and former gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert as its attorney seem downright reasonable.

Despite Burns’ cheerleading, concerned citizens in Douglas County used Google Search and found troubling — and undisclosed — problem signs about Ramirez with a few keystrokes. His track record is riddled with red flags. Douglas County citizens logically surmised the Northern Nevada school district and its approximately 5,400 students could do better, and implored the board to do its due diligence.

Ramirez lied on his application, was slow to admit a DUI conviction and failed to publicly explain other issues during his career that include sexual harassment allegations and tapping district credit cards for personal use. He also pleaded no contest to a hit-and-run driving charge.

He resigned from the Stockton superintendent’s position after a tumultuous year, and in 2023 his name surfaced in a state audit report linking him to an effort to bypass proper channels to push for a $7.3 million contract for air purifiers for a private contractor.

After all that, what was Douglas County doing when it even considered hiring him?

Who knows? Perhaps he placed first in the charm category.

Undaunted, Burns remained impressed with his man. In a special meeting Feb. 6 Ramirez prevailed on a 4-3 vote of the board despite an impressive display of opposition from citizens, parents and teachers — folks who expected more from the people elected to guide the school district.

Of many stinging rebukes, two comments were particularly noteworthy. One was from retired teacher Gaye Tyndall, a 70-year Carson Valley resident who spent four decades with the Douglas school district.

“I’m angry,” she began. “I’m being played by this ‘Democratic process’ today. I have a cutesy little story to share with you tonight about how buying a horse and picking a superintendent are very similar. Things like, not to buy someone else’s problem, or that a horse doesn’t change its spots. Or, to not be in a big hurry to find your next horse, especially when nothing was wrong with the old horse. But you don’t deserve my cutesy little story. By looking at your scores and rankings it appears you’ve already chosen your next superintendent.”

She invoked the names of previous pillars of the public school system in the county, then added, “but you haven’t even heard of these names because you just got here. And now just like the way you bamboozled your way onto the board, you now have a pawn, a parrot for your new superintendent you’ve already chosen. I’ve been attending these meetings the last several months, and I’ve observed that you take public comment, but you don’t listen to it. Shame on you and shame on the Republican Central Committee for endorsing you.”

Douglas County teacher AnneMarie Chase was among those associated with the aptly named We Deserve a Better Board group. After reeling off a list of Ramirez’s controversies, she wondered aloud, “To the members who ranked him so highly, I would like to know if you were unaware of this information, or you ranked him in spite of this information?”

Hey, never mind the voices of common sense. On Feb. 6, the fix was in for Ramirez — until it wasn’t.

As word spread of the mistake they had made, the fallout grew. By Tuesday, the board reversed itself and voted to start a new superintendent search. The mad political scientists who have been taking over the school district through intimidation and fear-mongering had once again blown themselves up.

Burns managed to make himself look even worse, telling skeptics the board had only been following the applicable section of the Nevada Revised Statutes and multiple background checks of Ramirez. None dare call the appointment politically motivated, but one of the “background checks” was done by conservative political blogger and Nevada Globe editor Megan “Reagan Babe” Barth. She vouched for Ramirez’s credibility.

In a moment during Tuesday’s meeting that bordered on the surreal, Barth was allowed to launch into a defense of Ramirez under the banner of her journalism credentials. Despite objections from one of his colleagues, Burns decided to exercise his “president’s prerogative” to give his ally Barth extra time to speak.

All of which only made the board president appear the more blockheaded.

The Ramirez fiasco in Douglas County has reverberated far beyond the Carson Valley and is reminding the country of Nevada’s status as a land of far-right political alchemy. When you find yourself the subject of Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, you’re officially a national laughing stock. But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Go to Google Search and see for yourself.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.


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