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Washoe County schools OK $500K to lawyer up against Trustee Jeff Church

According to the district’s chief legal counsel, Church has filed or supported 31 legal actions against the district costing approximately $345K.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education

The Washoe County School Board voted 6-0 Tuesday to spend up to $500,000 to hire outside legal counsel to defend the district against what one district leader characterized as a “pattern of predatory litigation” by Trustee Jeff Church that has included nearly three dozen lawsuits filed or supported by him. 

Church, a retired Reno Police sergeant and United States Air Force lieutenant colonel who abstained from the vote, has been on the Washoe County School Board since 2021, and is running for re-election. Church has been a controversial figure on the board and was nearly censured in 2021 for possible board policy violations. 

In December, Church filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to compel the Washoe County School District (WCSD) to release records that the district previously denied releasing to Church related to an appointment to a district committee. On March 1, Church filed another petition to compel the district to launch an independent investigation into “false accusation of harassment, sexual harassment or intimidation” Church said were made against him by two female whistleblowers who claimed they were approached by Church in a parking lot after board meeting last summer. 

Both petitions ask the district to pay Church’s legal costs and his attorney fees.

“There appears to be an inclination among some district employees to obfuscate and hide what are obviously public records and serious concerns,” said Luke Busby, Church’s attorney, in a March 10 letter to the school district. "Trustee Church’s intent is clear: to shed light on the facts and ensure they are brought before the public and the board, moving away from a culture of concealment that pervades WCSD, and especially its general counsel’s office.”

Before the vote, Church said he agreed that hiring an outside attorney for the district was appropriate, citing animosity between him and Neil Rombardo, the district’s chief legal counsel. 

Church also read a statement from his attorney offering to waive any potential claims against the district in exchange for the appointment of an external investigator. He also offered to resign and withdraw his candidacy for re-election if allegations he said were brought against him were proven true.   

“If you … give me an independent investigation that I went out in that parking lot and I harassed women absolutely you'll have my resignation,” Church said Tuesday. 

According to Rombardo, Church has filed four open meeting law complaints and two lawsuits against the district since being elected in 2020. Rombardo added that Church has also supported 22 open meeting law complaints and three lawsuits against the district.

During the Tuesday meeting, Rombardo estimated all those complaints and lawsuits that Church has filed or supported have cost the district approximately $345,000, although he did not break down the costs of the complaints and lawsuits filed directly by Church. 

Rombardo estimated it could cost the district up to $500,000 to hire an outside legal counsel who will work with his office to defend the district. The funds would come out of the district’s general fund, which is used to provide programs for students and paying for employees’ salaries and benefits. 

“This item is not about silencing Trustee Church,” Rombardo said at the Tuesday meeting. “He is welcome to file as many lawsuits as he wants and we will defend as long as they're not vexatious, of course, and grounded in good faith.”

Rombardo said the district has successfully fought off the 31 lawsuits and complaints brought on by or supported by Church. In addition, Rombardo said Church has also filed five lawsuits against other local entities, including the City of Reno and Washoe County, that were all dismissed. 

“This suggests someone who uses the system to file lawsuits against the local government to no avail to achieve his goals,” Rombardo said.   

Board President Beth Smith also cited a 2016 lawsuit by Church, before he was elected as a trustee, that unsuccessfully challenged a proposed Washoe County sales tax increase known today as WC-1 to fund the building of new district schools and repairs for older campuses.

“It is very clear from that that Trustee Church has been filing lawsuits with the intent of financially harming the district, not just since 2021, but since 2016,” Smith said. “So I look at that when I consider a pattern of what I think could be emerging — as a pattern of predatory litigation against the district.”

Church said he disputes all of the statements made related to him, including that he has not prevailed in his many cases. He did not specify which cases he was referring to. 

On Tuesday, the board also voted 6-0 to deny Church’s request for an independent investigation into claims made against him by the whistleblowers. Church also abstained from that vote.

The latest feud between Church and the rest of the school board attracted the attention of prominent GOP political activist and donor Robert Beadles, who has spread unfounded election conspiracy theories and backed conservative candidates in past election cycles. 

In a Wednesday blog post, Beadles called for all board members except for Church to be voted out, referring to Smith as “Death Smith.” The post included an image depicting Smith as a grim reaper dressed in a black cloak while holding a scythe, which Beadles said referred to “the perceived death of our children’s education system, along with a lack of transparency and accountability in board actions.”

Smith said in a Wednesday statement she was “disgusted” by Beadles’ attacks against her. 

“As a recent cancer survivor, I find this to be particularly appalling,” she wrote. “No matter our individual differences, this level of ugly, personal, and potentially violence-inducing attack is a betrayal of our shared decency.”

Smith called on any candidate who has received funding from Beadles to denounce his tactics and return his donations. 

This story was updated on 3/13/24 at 5:37 p.m. to include new statements from Smith and Robert Beadles.


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