PHOTO/ERIC MARKS: Protesters at the Oct. 25, 2021, Washoe County School Board meeting.

Three seats on the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees are up for grabs in the Nov. 8 election.

Elizabeth Smith, the incumbent in District D, received more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary and will retain her seat automatically. The other three incumbents, who also had faced multiple challengers and finished first in the primary, will face the candidates who came in second in those races.

The three hopefuls—Colleen Westlake, Graeme Reid and Melanie Sutton—were among nine primary candidates endorsed by a group called “Save Washoe County School District.” That group’s website stated those candidates opposed “critical race theory,” a graduate-level course that is not taught in Washoe classrooms (or any other school district), and other hot button issues embraced by right-wing groups.

Opposition to CRT has become a cause celeb among critics of public schools nationally. Their opponents say the complaints about the theory are shorthand for favoring a sanitized, white-centric version of American history, and a catch-all phrase for other conservative causes.


DISTRICT B

Covers Sun Valley and parts of Sparks, including the new Hug High School

Ellen Minetto

Ellen Minetto, incumbent: Minetto, 62, was elected to the board in 2018. She is a retired teacher with 31 years of service, including 29 in the Washoe County School District. Minetto’s three children graduated from district schools.

Minetto said her main motivation in serving on the board is a love for the children. She decided to run for re-election, because candidates who were running against incumbents in the primary election seemed bent on tearing down the educational advances made in recent years. She noted that protests at board meetings during the last two years have centered on divisive political and cultural issues that have little or nothing to do with the board’s responsibilities.

“Some of (the protestors) have been really scary,” Minetto said.

Candidates who echo critics’ concerns about COVID-19 masks, alleged “indoctrination” of students to socialist views, the way history is taught in schools, and other complaints would create “mayhem” at the district if they were elected, she said. Minetto noted she and other incumbents have been verbally attacked in public comments and subjected to what she said was a deluge of misinformation from opponents during the primary election. She said critics’ vitriol—rather than solutions—is their only motivation.

“They hate us,” she said. “They have such anger about everything; they want to dismantle the school board.”

The district has big challenges going forward, she said, including recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 restrictions; dealing with staffing shortages among teachers, bus drivers and support personnel; and crafting policies that better serve teachers, students and parents.

Minetto praised the district teachers and staff, but she said if the panel’s incumbents are replaced with people who have no experience with the district and seek to tear it down, she predicts a “mass exodus” of employees. The district, she said, must support every aspect of students’ development —not only academics, but the students’ social and mental health needs as well.

Staffing problems at the district, including a shortage of bus drivers and teachers, is a national issue, she said, and education budgets are set at the Legislature, not by school districts. Most members of the current board are working hard to solve problems, she said, but critics complain without proposing solutions.

“We need a good, solid school board,” Minetto said, that is focused on real issues and not a national culture war. “We can do better, of course, but we won’t get anything done if we’re looking through some cultural or political lens.”

According to the Nevada Secretary of State’s campaign-contribution reports, last updated July 15, Minetto reported a total of $500 in contributions and $540 in expenses. She received a single $500 contribution from Irish Capital LLC, according to the report. The state’s next reporting period is in October.


Colleen Westlake

Colleen Westlake, challenger: Westlake, 60, works for a Reno orthodontist and has been employed in the dental field for 30 years. She served on the Sierra Youth Football League board for more than a decade, but hasn’t served on any boards or as an elected official.

Westlake has no children attending school in the district, but has seven young grandchildren who presumably will enroll in Washoe schools. It’s the first time she has run for office. She entered the school board race, because “I’m passionate about kids. I feel it is time for me to give back to the community and to serve,” she said.

The school district, she said, is “not doing our kids justice, because they have gone so far astray from teaching the basics. I’d like to get the ship turned around.”

She said the district’s emphasis should be a rounded education of reading, writing, arithmetic and other traditional subjects. “They need to get their eyes back on the ball,” she said. The children, she said, need to be prepared for a future “that is not just bright for them, but a future where they can give back to the community and contribute to their community.”

Westlake objects to some district policies including “equity and diversity,” which she says is lowering educational standards. The district’s website explains the “equity and diversity” policy as: “Equity means that every student is provided the support and resources they individually need to accomplish the same end goal: graduation and college- and career-readiness. The end-goal for all students is the same, but the process of getting there differs.”

Westlake said she has a different definition: “I’m all for equality,” Westlake said. “But the way ‘equity’ is used in schools is treating all students the same, no matter how much work they put into it. We don’t want little Johnny to fail, so we lower the bar.”

Westlake said that the schools also shouldn’t be concerned with “social and emotional” platforms. “The parents should provide emotional support; the responsibility of the school is education.”

Although Westlake has not sat in on any classes in local schools, she bases her criticism of the district on low student test scores, even before COVID-19 disruptions hit the district. She said test scores have been “declining for years.” (Editor’s note: An assessment by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, released in August after Westlake was interviewed by the RN&R, shows that Washoe County School District students this spring earned high scores in English language arts and math.)

According to the July campaign contributions report, Westlake had $2,774.06 in contributions and $4,266.26 in expenses. Her contributions came from three donors, with the largest contribution coming from Sparks residents Greg and Sharla Gerhardt, who donated $1,000. Westlake said supporters have encouraged her to solicit contributions from Robert Beadles, who is backing other board challengers, but she has declined. “I don’t want to be beholden to him,” she said, adding she also won’t accept contributions or endorsements from unions.


DISTRICT F

An at-large seat that covers about half of Washoe County

Adam Mayberry

Adam Mayberry, incumbent: Mayberry, 51, was appointed to the school board in November and has served on the panel for about a year. Mayberry, the communications officer for Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue, also has served on the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority Board, Secret Witness Board and Sparks Citizens Advisory Committee, as well as other community boards and committees. He has two children in local schools.

Mayberry said he wants to stay on the panel for the same reasons he applied for the post last year. After seeing the negativity and conflicts that have recently plagued the board, he said, he wants to serve as “a voice of reason” on the panel. He opposes the distraction of political ideology that often is injected into board meetings and “the weaponization of students themselves,” who can become pawns of critics’ political agendas.

Board policies, he said, should be centered on improving students’ academic performance, and hiring and retaining excellent teachers and staff. The district, he said, needs appropriate resources and policies that keep students safe and secure. Parents, he noted, have many avenues to get involved in their children’s education, including parent-teacher groups, volunteering at schools, participating in the Washoe County Parent University, communicating with teachers and board members, and sitting in at classrooms to see what goes on there.

Some critics accuse the district of indoctrinating students with “leftist” ideas, teaching them that white people are oppressors and equating policies about transgender students to pedophilia. Those “false narratives are set up as bogeymen. … They want to instill fear so that they can take a wrecking ball to public schools,” Mayberry said.

The “diversity, equity and inclusion” policy that is often a target of critics, he said, is about creating a level playing field, not moving the educational goalposts. “Students learn at different paces,” Mayberry said. “Some need more support than others. It’s based on what the student needs, not on just promoting students. … Some may need tutors, or after-school programs, or summer school. If a student needs more help, they should get it. That’s the role equity plays.”

Mayberry said he is running a positive campaign about the issues, not false narratives. “We need to hire and retain good teachers and staff,” he said, and state government needs to restore educational funding that was slashed in recent years. “The next (legislative) session needs to be the educational session,” he said.

Mayberry’s other priorities include teacher and staff recruitment and retention, helping students catch up after the disruptions caused by the pandemic, making sure teachers have the resources they need, keeping class sizes down, and maintaining the student meal program.

On his July campaign finance report, Mayberry listed a total of $32,588.62 in contributions and $23,829.33 in expenses, including many monetary contributions that exceeded $100. His biggest contributions include a $5,000 donation from Reno resident Sandy Raffaelli; a $2,000 donation from Grand Sierra Resort and Casino; $1,000 from the Washoe Education Association; $1,000 from Peppermill Casino Inc.; and $500 from Reno Councilman Devon Reese.


Graeme Reid

Graeme Reid, challenger: Reid is a 20-year resident of Reno, where he has owned and operated a law firm since 2015. He has two sons in elementary school and a daughter who will soon attend district schools.

Reid said he is running because he is not happy with the direction of the district, which he said has allowed education to be politicized. “Politics should be kept out of education,” he said. “… The schools should be neutral. Children should be taught to think critically and not (taught) with critical theory.”

He defines “critical theory,” including critical race theory, “as a form of conditioning minds.” CRT classes, which are a way of understanding how American racism has shaped public policy, are taught at the university graduate level. But Reid said its principles are being applied in K-12 level classes in Washoe County.

“(The district) is applying those principles to classes, manipulating the children to comply with that agenda,” he said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion policies are the “enforcement arm” of CRT, he said. Those policies are causing a lot of the older teachers to quit the district, he said, although he was unable to cite any data in support of the statement. If the district gets rid of those policies, he said, more teachers can be retained. Reid said there are marginalized groups in the U.S., but the diversity, equity and inclusion policy isn’t the way to resolve that problem. 

On the other hand, Reid said, “history is an ugly subject, and teachers need to be able to talk about all of it, but viewing it through a critical race theory lens is problematic.” Partisan politics should be left out of those discussions, he said. “It’s not an objective form of teaching,” Reid said. “It’s meant to get an emotional response from the child. It’s a subjective form of teaching.”

Reid said he district also is collecting an inordinate amount of data about students through its Infinite Campus databank and other means, which could create privacy problems for students. “I think the board is not taking those risks seriously enough,” he said.

Student discipline, Reid said, also is a problem at local schools and that the “restorative justice” policy used by the district isn’t working. That process, in use at schools around the country, is based on bringing students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions and air their grievances, according to Edutopia.com. He’s not sure what should be done to tighten up discipline in schools, he said. Reid supports school uniforms, but isn’t making it a campaign issue.

Although Reid said he has been called a “right-wing extremist” candidate, he takes offense at the term, which he said is “a popular slander” by opponents. “I would say I’m more in the middle” of the political spectrum, he said.

Reid’s July campaign contributions report showed a total of $10,315.02 in contributions from seven donors and $9,934.15 in expenses for the reporting period. His largest contribution of $5,000 came from Robert Beadles. Aguirre Riley of Reno and Valerie Fianacca of Sparks each donated $1,000 to Reid’s campaign.


District C

Covers Spanish Springs and North Valleys high schools; Cold Springs middle school; Desert Heights and Lemmon Valley elementary schools; Gerlach K-12 School and others

Joe Rodriguez.

Joe Rodriguez, incumbent: Rodriguez, 38, a 22-year resident of Washoe County, was appointed to the District C seat a year ago. He works for the Nevada State Police as an assistant state fire marshal for the State Fire Marshal Division and has three children attending local public schools.

In an interview with the RN&R, Rodriguez said the district needs to prioritize its recovery from the effects of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The district, he said, is using the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSR) to pay for tutoring and summer schools. The Legislature, he said, must make increased funding for schools a priority.

Rodriguez said he wants to remain on the board, because he has been involved in jobs that serve the public since he was 18, including as a firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management, serving in the National Guard, and being in law enforcement, where he came into contact with a lot of at-risk children.

“I came across kids who had no place to go, where the only safe place (they had) was the schools,” he said. “I can’t think of a better board to be on,” said Rodriguez.

In the past year on the panel, he said, “I have seen some things that were frustrating, but I’ve seen a lot of successes, too.”

He noted that the board has had a lot of distractions, including COVID-19 disruptions, controversies over masks in classrooms, distance learning, CRT debates and other “culture wars” protests. In addition, the board weathered the attempted censure of one panel member, the failed recall effort of another, and the resignations of others for various reasons. “But I think that’s behind us,” Rodriguez said. The newer board members, including Mayberry, Smith and himself, he said, “really bring a fresh, new perspective. … We’re not politicians or looking to run for higher office; we’re just parents who really care about the students and the schools.”

Rodriguez said the best way to counter misinformation about the schools is to get parents more involved. “There always will be an element of the community which will never believe anything we say,” he said. “One way to build trust is to get parents in the classrooms as volunteers, join parents’ groups, come to the classrooms and see what’s going on.”

He said school curriculum is set by the state, not the district, and that teaching basic subjects—reading, writing and math—are at its core. He agrees that “the basics” are especially important as the district recovers from the disruptions caused by the pandemic. “We need to get our kids back where they need to be (academically),” he said. “… We need to give our students the cutting edge education they need to meet the challenges of the future.”

Teaching history accurately is part of that quality education, he said: “We need to teach accurate history, our failures included,” he said. Part of that, he said, “is that no race, gender or religion is being shamed. It’s just history.” Attempts of a vocal minority to take over the school board and remake it in line with their political ideology is a “power grab,” Rodriguez said, that has nothing to do with educating pupils. 

Rodriguez reported a total of $8,042 in contributions and $11,560.79 in expenses in his July campaign report, including a total of $2,000 in contributions from the Washoe Education Association’s Together in Politics; $1,000 from the Nevada State Education Association and $250 from Reno City Councilman Devon Reese.


Melanie Sutton, challenger: Sutton, 43, did not respond to the RN&R’s request for an interview. According to information published by the Reno Gazette-Journal prior to the primary, Sutton graduated high school in 1996 and is, or has been, a supermarket worker.

Her profile page on the now-inactive SaveWCSD site and her current campaign site described her goal as to “dismantle the current dysfunctional School Board and rebuild it. We know our kids are not receiving the quality education they need and deserve and I intend to bring our focus back to improving academics for every child in the Washoe County School District and ensuring we graduate students capable of becoming productive, successful adults in our community.”

Sutton was in the news in June 2021, when school district police told her to remove her vehicle from district property, because she had a gun in the back seat of the vehicle. She did so and wasn’t cited for the incident. Sutton didn’t bring the gun into the building. The Reno Gazette-Journal, which reviewed video of the incident, reported that Sutton told police she needed the firearm for protection from “Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

The following statements are from her campaign website and were posted in advance of the June primary. Some of her comments center on the district’s COVID-19 mask requirement, which was discontinued in February:

“I need your vote this June. Here’s why: First and foremost, I am a devoted wife and mother of three children. Having been born and raised in a small farm town on my grandparents ranch, I am most at home in the countryside. I have lived in Reno five years. My children are 10, 1, and 18. They are my world. I coached Babe Ruth softball for 3 years. I was the chair at Relay for Life Cancer Society for two years. And to my children’s delight, I currently own and run a traveling petting zoo.”

Sutton wrote that she removed her children from school and is home schooling them because “of the way our District was handling COVID as it pertained to the schools.” She wrote that the mask requirement, the district’s online-learning model and the “hybrid” system the district adopted in August of 2020, which allowed kids to be in school half-time, “was a disaster. I knew what the masking combined with the dismal education would do to my kids, and I have now witnessed the results. … Now our kids have lost a year and a half of proper education, and test results and grades clearly show the decline.

“As concerned as I am about our children’s education, I am equally as concerned about their mental and emotional well-being. I believe the school closures, hybrid learning model and two years of masking has been devastating to our kids.”

She objected to there being no exemptions available to children for medical reasons, including students who suffered “panic attacks.” The board, she wrote, “allowed discrimination to go on, and kids to be masked for two years without listening to what the majority of parents were begging for. That is why I chose to homeschool my kids, and that is why I am running for School Board. I would like my kids to be able to go back to school in Washoe County. I want them learning math, English, history and how to balance a checkbook while breathing oxygen and not being discriminated against for our family’s medical decisions.”

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