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Battle lines drawn as CCSD trustees set to hold hearing on Jara’s conduct

Updated July 28, 2020 - 8:35 pm

Battle lines were clearly drawn ahead of a special session of the Clark County School Board on Wednesday to discuss Superintendent Jesus Jara’s conduct.

Related: Watch a livestream of the special session here

But the outcome, including whether the board will vote on terminating his contract, remained a cliffhanger.

The first item on the agenda at the 1 p.m. special session of the Board of Trustees is Jara’s conduct during the 2020 special session of the state Legislature, when he erroneously stated that the district was not behind a bill to return unspent funds from schools to the district.

The trustees also will review and discuss Jara’s statements on reopening schools. During discussions with the board, Jara indicated that the Nevada Department of Education would need to approve the district’s reopening plan, which turned out to be incorrect.

The decision to hold the special meeting came after Jara’s statements, particularly those regarding the bill to recapture the schools’ unspent funds, were criticized as untruthful by Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state’s top education official, prompting the union representing school district administrators to call for his removal.

But others, including the teachers union and local elected leaders, have rallied behind Jara, saying his recent missteps are outweighed by his dedication to providing Clark County schoolchildren with a better education.

Board President Lola Brooks said Tuesday that the meeting is not disciplinary, but rather a chance for the board to publicly discuss those two items and consider whether to move forward with the third: “possible action on termination for convenience,” or termination without a given reason.

“This means our discussion will be limited to whether or not the board wants to terminate his contract and pay the remainder of his contract out in full,” Brooks said. “Because the item is not ‘Termination for Cause,’ the discussion must be limited to whether or not we are terminating his contract versus whether or not any wrongdoing has occurred.”

Trustees’ expectations

A meeting broaching disciplinary action like termination for cause would violate Jara’s contract, which specifies that trustees must follow board policy in handling any issues with his job performance, according to Brooks.

Brooks said no trustees have completed the second step of the process, which involves meeting with her and Jara to address an issue.

Trustee Linda Cavazos said Tuesday that while much has been made of the item regarding termination, she was first to request the special meeting in order to have an informative discussion to review what’s happened over recent weeks. She was later joined by Trustees Danielle Ford and Linda Young.

A vote on termination is not the board’s only possible action should it decide to take any, Cavazos said, noting, for example, that other school districts have censured school officials.

Ultimately, she said, she’s not going into the meeting with her mind made up, and she hopes for “a respectful meeting with everybody being treated with dignity.”

The five other trustees did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Divided response

Public reaction to the meeting and the controversy over Assembly Bill 2, the bill to recapture the unspent school funds for use by the district, has been decidedly divided.

Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Henderson Mayor Debra March and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee jointly wrote a letter to the School Board voicing support for Jara.

That came after Sisolak and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert issued a joint statement earlier this month sharply criticizing Jara, and the National Education Association of Southern Nevada issued a statement calling for Jara to resign or be removed.

The Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, or CCASAPE, also criticized the superintendent for hurting the district’s relationship with state lawmakers.

But even within those broad groups, there is dissent.

On Saturday, for example, a CCSD elementary school principal sent a letter to the School Board saying the administrators union’s strong rebuke of Jara didn’t represent her opinion. HOPE for Nevada, a public education advocacy group, posted the letter on its Twitter page.

Melonie Poster, principal of Dondero Elementary School in Las Vegas and a member of the administrators union, wrote in the letter that she was literally sick to her stomach with stress when she saw the union’s statement on Jara.

“I questioned ‘Where is this hate coming from? Why are we being blindsided, and why is this happening, now, when we are sifting through the uncertainties of a pandemic and should be focused on our students and families?’ Within seconds, text messages and phone calls poured in from other administrators just as confused as me.”

On Tuesday, CCSD Trustee Deanna Wright shared on her Twitter page a letter to the School Board in support of Jara written by Bob and Sandy Ellis, generous donors to education causes who have a CCSD elementary school in Henderson named after them.

“We have the utmost respect for Jesus and know his priority is for kids to stay in school and get a good education along with graduating,” the Ellises wrote. Though Jara has made mistakes lately, they “feel these can be repaired with time and are not good enough reasons to terminate his contract,” the letter states.

Workforce Connections, a local workforce development board in Southern Nevada, also wrote a July 21 letter to the School Board expressing support for Jara.

Jara is the first CCSD superintendent who has been a member of Workforce Connections’ board, chairwoman Valerie Murzl and vice chairman Jack Martin wrote. “He has demonstrated a willingness to have difficult, but necessary conversations about the expectation that children be at the forefront of all decisions made at the school level.”

They wrote they don’t want to diminish the school board’s concerns about Jara’s recent legislative actions, but “we cannot sit idly by as you consider a change in leadership. We ask that you place kids first at this time of crisis. We feel strongly that a change in leadership would critically destabilize an already fragile system that is grappling with extraordinary stressors.”

Business organizations queried by the Review-Journal on Tuesday about whether they continue to support Jara — including the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, the Nevada Association of Employers and the Nevada Federation of Independent Business — all declined to comment.

Teachers union support

The Clark County Education Association has come down firmly behind Jara, with a podcast released Monday defending the schools chief and a letter on Tuesday criticizing Ford and accusing her of having it in for Jara.

Union Vice President Jim Frazee said that amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and anticipated budget cuts, some trustees and special interest groups want to “go ahead and cut off the head of our organization for their own agenda” and pay him millions of dollars the district doesn’t have.

He added that Jara’s contract is up next year — it runs through June — and there’s no reason to act right now.

CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said that the union had issues with Jara and his leadership a year ago when the union threatened a teacher strike but that those had been resolved.

“We let that chapter go,” he said.

He said Ford is being reckless in calling for a leadership change when she hasn’t embraced Jara from the beginning. He said that’s also true of the administrators union.

A letter from the union sent Monday attacking Ford goes a step further, stating that the trustee had formed an alliance with the administrators union to call for Jara’s firing.

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at 702-383-0218 or aappleton @reviewjournal.com. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter. Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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