PHOTO/ERIC MARKS: Protesters at the Oct. 25, 2021, Washoe County School Board meeting. At that meeting the board considered censuring Trustee Jeff Church.

Voters in November will decide if the Washoe County School Board, under siege from “culture wars” protestors for the past two years, will take a political right turn.

Protestors flocked to board meetings to oppose COVID-19 mask mandates, as well as the remote and hybrid learning models that replaced in-person classes during the height of the pandemic. Some attend the meetings to air grievances against the district’s equity and diversity programs, the way the history of racism is discussed in classes, sex education and LGBTQ issues. Their rallying cry is to “take back” the school board.

Outspoken critics of the panel have sometimes created a threatening atmosphere at the meetings, according to some trustees and other attendees. Passions run high in what has been an often-chaotic two years, as board members navigated the effects of the pandemic—and the divisive political landscape.

The panel weathered the resignation of several members, including former trustee Kurt Thigpen, who left his seat in July 2021. Thigpen has said he was facing death threats and felt that his life was in danger from some of the more vehement board critics. An activist in 2021 mounted an unsuccessful recall campaign against board president Angie Taylor, who said in October that the district now has a “safe room” in its headquarters building for the trustees and staff. Teachers who attend board meetings have complained that protestors photographed their license plates and ID badges, a tactic they said has a chilling effect on their ability to make public comments at the meetings.

This year, nine candidates under the banner of “Save Washoe County School District” challenged four board incumbents in the June primary. Three incumbents and three challengers advanced to the general election; the fourth incumbent retained her seat after getting more than 50 percent of votes in the primary. The SaveWCSD website, now taken down, alleged that the district has “an ultra-left curriculum that ignores academics, promotes propaganda over objective instruction, derides traditional moral values and parents’ roles, and encourages racism and a distorted view of America’s history and accomplishments.”

Although it’s technically a nonpartisan board, politics regularly rears its head. Some of the critics who attend the board’s meetings present their views in a civil manner; others interrupt discussions with shouts, and scream at panel members during public comment periods. That’s a national trend, experts say, and it’s organized at a national level.

“It’s getting kind of wild,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, an associate professor of education policy at Michigan State University who studies national education issues.


A national rage machine

Washoe County’s experience isn’t unique, Johnson said. The nation’s school boards, formerly known for tedious meetings about budgets and conducting sleepy election campaigns, have become battlegrounds in the culture wars. Boards have become steeped in partisan politics—and that’s no accident. It’s part of a national conservative—and often, Trumpist-related—strategy, some experts conclude.

For decades, Jacobsen said, school boards have sometimes been a venue for conflicts about social and political issues, including sex education, school prayer, evolution, federal testing requirements and busing. Culture wars issues have occasionally flared up, instigated by both the left and the right.

“What’s different now is the combination of well-organized national interest, and it can be from either the left and the right. This time it happens to be coming from the right,” Jacobsen said.

Organizations like the conservative Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute and others have put together “slick packets” and templates for proposed laws for local activists. “They tell them what to say, how to say it, and really gave them play books,” she said. “They’ve also been really successful with getting the word out on social media with groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education.”

When recruiting candidates, some national groups aren’t interested in people who say they will weigh the evidence and examine both sides of issues, Jacobsen said. “What happens when these national groups enter, and money becomes a real big issue, is that the politics becomes what we see at the national level,” she said. “We heard candidates tell us over and over that … nobody wants candidates who say they want to compromise.  (These groups) want candidates who will ‘pound your fist for this thing, or pound your fist for that thing.’ So it’s causing school board members to take stronger, more polarized stances.”

“We’ve been calling on all parents to pull their kids out of government schools, because it’s no longer a public school system. … They are indoctrinating our children. We need to blow up this school system and then rebuild, because you guys suck.” Melanie Sutton, school board candidate, addressing school trustees

The groups sow the seeds of dissent and support local activists and candidates, even providing funding. “You add social media to that, and it really took off like wildfire,” Jacobsen said. Opposition to “critical race theory,” a theory about systemic racism becoming self-perpetuating that is taught in graduate-level classes (and never in K-12 schools), was a “purposeful creation” by a scholar at the Manhattan Institute. “He’s said on Twitter that he’s going after that term and redefining it to mean everything that’s making people feel angry … gender issues, bathroom issues, books—you name it.”

The line between national and local politics has been blurred, Jacobsen said, because “everything is moving so quickly. … You can look like you are local, but really be coming from that national interest.”

Washoe County’s school board challengers say their concerns are organic. They say they are thinking for themselves, and no one is pulling the strings of their campaigns. They have a well-financed ally, though, in Robert Beadles, who has pledged to replace the board members he considers to be liberal. He is a proponent of a national “precinct strategy” that’s seeking to dominate local politics one county at a time, according to one of his websites, operationsunlight.com. Beadles moved to Reno from California in 2019 and first attended a Washoe County School Board meeting on Oct. 25, 2021. That was a special session to discuss the possible censure of Trustee Jeff Church, an effort Beadles called a “kangaroo court.”

“God has blessed me,” Beadles told the panel during the public comment period. “I have a shit-ton of money, and I’m going to do everything I fucking can to remove all of you.”

Beadles, who did not respond to the RN&R’s request for comment, subsequently contributed to the campaigns of several board challengers, according to state campaign-finance reports. He also paid for the unsuccessful recall effort against Taylor and a recall effort against Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung, which was withdrawn. Beadles’ political action committee, The Franklin Project, paid for a recount in the state GOP primary, funded an unsuccessful lawsuit by failed gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert, and produced direct-mail attacks on local incumbents, including School Board Trustee Elizabeth Smith.


‘Domestic terrorists’

The mailer accused Smith of supporting “totalitarianism and enlisting the full might of the U.S. surveillance state on parents who exercise their right of free speech to voice their displeasure of far-left indoctrination of public schools, labeling them as potential ‘domestic terrorists.’” The mailer accused Smith of supporting critical race theory, which is not taught in K-12 classrooms, and “radical sexuality and gender identity theories taught to our children.”

Smith, who won her seat outright by getting more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary against two challengers, said the mailer was bizarre and historic. “I’m the first Washoe County School Board trustee candidate to ever have a PAC go after me,” she noted.

“Why are (critics) so angry? I think it’s because they are afraid, afraid of change, afraid of the future.” Washoe County School Board Trustee Ellen Minetto

Trustee Jeff Church, who is two years into a four-year term, supports the three challengers. The SaveWCSD site was his idea, he said, adding that neither he nor the challengers are radicals. “I think we’re very mainstream,” he said.

The district, Church said, has taken a political left turn; he and the challengers want to improve the schools, not tear down the district. “I just think we can do better,” Church said. On a scale of 10, where 1 is extremely leftist and 10 is the right-wing fringe, Church considers himself “about a 7.”

PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: Trustee Jeff Church at a recent school board meeting.

Placing an item on the board’s agenda requires the support of at least two trustees, and Church often stands alone. If one of the challengers wins, he banks on having more clout and getting some of his proposals on the agenda. If all three win and support Church’s positions, they will have a majority on the seven-member panel. “If we had four … then we really change the direction of the school board,” Church said. “(With) two, we can get stuff on the agenda.”

Reno resident Richard Jay, who has been active in local boards, service groups and civic associations for 30 years, has been the self-appointed “Jeff Church watchdog” since 2020. Jay, who has written guest columns for local media outlets, said Church has flooded the public with misinformation and fans the flames of political partisanship at the board. He supports the three incumbents, all dedicated people who are serious about improving the district, he said. Church and the challengers, he said, are bent on politicizing the panel and creating chaos.

“What’s at stake in this election is our children’s future—our future doctors, lawyers, mechanics, carpenters and business owners,” said Jay, a Republican. “One hundred percent of our future is at stake.”


‘Blowing up’ the school system

Critics of the school board have consistently voiced their anger and frustration during the panel’s twice-monthly meetings.

School Board candidate Melanie Sutton, who has attended the meetings for more than a year and is facing incumbent Joe Rodriguez, frequently addresses the trustees. “We’ve been calling on all parents to pull their kids out of government schools, because it’s no longer a public school system. … They are indoctrinating our children. We need to blow up this school system and then rebuild, because you guys suck,” she told the panel during the Oct. 12, 2021 board meeting. Sutton did not respond to the RN&R’s interview request.

“Why are (critics) so angry?” asked Washoe County School Board Trustee Ellen Minetto, who is facing challenger Colleen Westlake in the November election. “I think it’s because they are afraid, afraid of change, afraid of the future.”

Some critics want to return to an idyllic bygone age that never existed, she said, and the hopelessness of that goal, along with the litany of grievances fanned by national conservative groups, breeds fear and anger.

Focusing school board campaigns on hot-button partisan issues isn’t always a winning strategy, some research shows. A study by Ballotpedia, released in May, identified 141 school districts in Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin that held elections in April, where candidates took a position on COVID-19 responses, racial issues in education or sex/gender in schools. In those “conflict races,” Ballotpedia reported, two-thirds of the incumbents kept their seats.

When school boards become a battleground for partisan politics, school districts can see-saw back and forth across the national political divide, Jacobsen noted. In Denver, she said, factions from the left and right of the political spectrum have had majorities on the school board at different times, creating a chaotic situation.

“There have been these wild swings back and forth,” Jacobsen said. “… The effect on the teachers and the district, trying to handle this agenda that swings back and forth every couple years, doing these 180-degree turns, is really harmful to the employees and ultimately to the students.”

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

  1. Every teacher I know aw well as the Board members with the exception of Jeff Church, have the best interest of our children at heart. They truly believe in education and go the extra mile to bring each child to his or her’s greatest potential. They give of themselves, their time, their money. I believe we have a great board as well as educated teachers who are dedicated helping students achieve. Those who are trying to radically change our educational system offer nothing of value or positive change. Some people simply like to create chaos & disruption. They are typically very negative people.

  2. Go back to prayer in school? When was that? I went to school in the 60’s & 70’s and never once ever heard a prayer! When were these wonderful glory days when they prayed in school! Maybe Sunday school in church, where it belongs – but never once in any public school I ever attended!

  3. From ex-left democrat- unfortunately, the extreme left is after the children – inappropriate sexual ed explicit – pushing your young child to be binary/ trans ( its true) ( why is this in school for small children??) what is the left also doing pushing the lockdowns and masks which have dramatically harmed children, I am also sorry the left has twisted CRT – and made it nasty ( Racial History is American History and not taught) but I guess the left has twisted that also.

  4. Frank. You need to educate yourself.
    I am not talking about anything but the WCSDs own website. (Local!)
    Do yourself a favor and look at the Equity and Diversity Teacher Training manual for WCSD.
    There are some fantastically racist items:
    White Privilege- unpacking the invisible knapsack
    On page 16. They cite Kimberly Crenshaw”The leading scholar of Critical Race Theory”
    Page 81: white people often speak in a kind of racial code, using communication pattern with each other that that encourage a kind of white racial bonding”
    Page 88
    Article called “White Supremacy Culture” by Tema Okun
    List characteristics of white supremacy culture such as
    *Perfectionism
    *worship of the written word
    * Individualism
    *Objectivity
    *Right to Comfort
    There are so many more examples.
    I will be dropping off a copy of the manual for you to read and completely ignore or justify.
    Next is the Social Justice Curriculum that the Board presented to the public in June of 2020.
    I am not afraid of telling our complete history, I was a History major in college.
    What I do object to is presenting one side of a subject completely devoid of context.
    In the lesson they are teaching slavery as if it was America’s Original Sin. Not saying it has existed in every culture since antiquity.
    Every lesson also encourages children as young as 5 to become Social Justice Warriors.
    I will be including a copy of the Curriculum for you to read, ignore or justify too.
    Another CRT tactic being used in WCSD is through Transformative Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
    On Measuring SEL CASEL website
    The main purpose of SEL has the potential to help mitigate the interrelated legacies of racial and class oppression in the IS.
    Page 4
    “…Norma are even more problematic when wealth and Whiteness are conflated and uncritically accepted as indicators of success. This fosters a sense of White racial entitlement and dominance”
    “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior”
    “Racism derive(s) largely from an over-emphasis on the accumulation of wealth in American culture. White elites promulgated racial used and cultural stereotypes to recruit poor and blacks Peking class Whites into hierarchical economic system to exploit them”
    (Sounds a bit, what’s the word Marxist?)

    THERE IS SO MUCH MORE.
    EDUCATE YOURSELF.
    THIS IS IN OUR LOCAL SCHOOL DISTRICT.
    Feel free to contact me for more information.

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