Commentary

Firing Jara was Cepeda’s idea, say two trustees

January 21, 2022 6:34 am

Clark County School Board Trustee Irene Cepeda and CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara.

On October 6, 2021, the Board of Trustees for the Clark County School District were told after their work session that they needed to go into a closed meeting. None of them were aware of what the closed meeting was about and, by all accounts, were pretty shell-shocked when chief negotiator Fikisha Miller walked in the room and announced that Supt. Jesus Jara had undermined her negotiations with the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), that he routinely bullied and undermined staff, that she was tendering her 30-day resignation, and that she fully expected to be fired when she walked out of the room.

The board endeavored to try to keep her and, when she refused, put her under their purview for her remaining 30 days.

The next day, on October 7, the Trustees held a meeting with then-board attorney Mary-Anne Miller. This is what I know about that meeting:

  1. That it happened
  2. That Fikisha Miller was not there
  3. That Mary-Anne Miller told the trustees that Fikisha Miller had been “emotional” when she talked to them the day before
  4. That a conversation happened after the meeting

It’s number 4 that I want to focus on. First, though, I want to say that there is good-faith disagreement over what Mary-Anne Miller meant by calling Fikisha Miller “emotional.” Trustee Danielle Ford thought it was a way to put a woman in her place. Trustee Lisa Guzman told me it was just the way Mary-Anne categorizes things, and that Mary-Anne also noted Fikisha was “very brave” in coming to the board.

Now to the conversation after that October 7 meeting.

According to both Guzman and Trustee Linda Cavazos, they were approached in the parking lot by Trustee Irene Cepeda.

This is how Guzman describes the scene:

“Irene was in the parking lot. She noticed I was struggling and asked me if I was OK. I said I was struggling with the situation because I deal with employment issues. Irene said something about how she was concerned by how women of color were treated on the cabinet, and I said ‘Me too, I’m glad you are validating my feelings on this.’

“That’s when she said, ‘I think he’s done. I think we need to take a look at this and I think he needs to go.’”

“He,” Guzman confirmed, is Jara. Cavazos also confirmed this.

“Irene was the first one to say we needed to put his termination on the agenda,” said Cavazos. “There was a discussion about misogyny happening in all parts of the district, but this was blatant, and we couldn’t let this go by.”

Trustee Danielle Ford was not part of that conversation. Ford said she had no idea the conversation took place until the first meeting of 2022, during the vote that would elect Cepeda as president, when Guzman pointed it out.

However, it was Ford who put forward the agenda item to terminate Jara on October 28.

“I was following Irene’s lead when I got a random email from Danielle asking to put him on the agenda,” said Guzman.

Guzman said she told Ford that she agreed it should be an agenda item, but couldn’t discuss it with her further.

Now, honestly, there is communication and there is communication. These are the kinds of distinctions that drive me crazy about the open meeting law. Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom has told me that while he can’t talk to three or more of his fellow commissioners about an issue, their staffs can, and their staffs report back and facilitate the deal making.

In this case, Guzman telling Ford that she couldn’t talk about it was a clear sign to Ford that it would have violated OML if she did. Which means that Ford knew there was a fourth vote from somewhere.

“Danielle is intuitive and she wanted to jump on it,” Guzman said.

Ford said the response from Guzman confirmed what she had already intuited during the original meeting with Fikisha Miller on October 6.

“Seeing Irene’s face, seeing her as horrified as I was feeling, I honestly at that point thought it was worth a conversation,” Ford said.

On October 28, Cavazos, Guzman, Ford and Cepeda voted to terminate Jara’s contract. Three weeks later, thanks to Cepeda reversing course, that decision was overturned and Jara ended up keeping his job.

I texted Cepeda to schedule an interview to talk about this new information – specifically that it was her idea to put Jara’s termination on the agenda.

She noted that there were “three trustees [who] requested the item be placed. Not one.”

Yes. Three trustees requested the agenda item. This is part of the new governance rules put in place by Brooks. Guzman and Cavazos backed Ford’s initiative.

I’m not sure, though, why that is important to Cepeda. She seems to be insinuating that three trustees requesting an agenda item that one or more other trustees also would like to see happen is breaking open meeting law.

That was actually the reason she gave to rescind Jara’s termination.

Let’s unpack that rationalization.

First, the Nevada Open Meeting Law Manual quotes the state Supreme Court: “Open Meeting Law is not intended to prohibit every private discussion of a public issue. Instead, the Open Meeting Law only prohibits collective deliberations or actions where a quorum is present.”

The manual even defines “present” as “a member of a public body… present through video conference or teleconference, but not through social media, such as a chat room, or email.”

Since four people did not get together – were not “present” – to discuss Jara’s termination, then it does not violate open meeting law. Even if one or more of the people who wanted to terminate Jara – including Cepeda – sent emails, it is not a violation of open meeting law.

Second, if a trustee couldn’t bring an agenda item if they had good-faith knowledge that other trustees would vote for it, then nothing would pass. Or everything that passed would be an OML violation.

I should note the exact thing Cepeda calls a violation happened with the rescinding of the vote to terminate Jara. Three trustees (Cepeda, Lola Brooks and Evelyn Garcia-Morales) requested an agenda item that they were certain a fourth trustee (Katie Williams) would vote for.

Alas, Cepeda refused to discuss the issue further.

Whether or not Cepeda understands OML is beside the point. She thinks she understands it, and according to her understanding, the law is a convenient excuse to backtrack on a decision – instigated by her – to fire a person she reportedly felt was a misogynist. 

Leaving people 0ut

There was another issue that came out in the January 5 meeting – that the three trustees who opposed Jara have not been receiving communications sent to other trustees.

The two examples brought up were Jara’s letter to trustees informing them that his executive secretary, Elizabeth Carrero, and the Chief of Facilities Jeff Wagner were leaving. Ford found this, ironically, in a tranche of emails requested by Brooks and Garcia-Morales to catch Ford in some sort of violation.

Keeping this info from the three trustees had nothing to do with deliberation of a policy. It had everything to do with keeping from the trustees information to do their jobs. 

“I was very upset by not just the emails themselves, but also that there was no response from the trustees who were included in the emails asking why weren’t the other trustees told this information,” Ford said.

Indeed. The fact that the four trustees who did see the email didn’t speak up tells me they knew, and perhaps even talked about, keeping the other trustees in the dark. 

Then, a week after that meeting, a public comment from the Board of Trustees was read into a meeting of the State Board of Education’s committee on AB469. It was signed by Cepeda as president, Garcia-Morales as vice-president, and Brooks – who, of course, was president of the board in 2019 and 2020 – as clerk.

The letter asked if there was a “possibility of a member of our board joining your subcommittee.” This idea, the letter said, was the brainchild of “our newly appointed clerk.”

“I’m not sure of the legalities of them being part of the subcommittee,” said Katie Dockweiler, who is the chair of said committee. “But they can attend and participate in all of the meetings.”

Dockweiler added that since the joint meeting the State Board of Ed had with the Trustees on September 30, the only trustee who has attended any of the subcommittee meetings has been Linda Cavazos. She did not speak.

At the January 20 State Board of Ed meeting, Asst. Attorney General David Gardner said the state board could allow a trustee on the subcommittee.

“You would need to approve it, and you would need to recommend who it would be,” Gardner said.

State Board of Education member Mark Newburn ignored that advice, and put forth a motion to allow the trustees to choose who would be put on the subcommittee. 

Oh, wait! I almost forgot the best part: Neither Cavazos nor Ford nor Guzman knew about the letter before it was read to the AB469 subcommittee on January 12. Cavazos and Guzman said they were watching the live stream when, to their surprise, a letter from them was read into the record. Ford was surprised when I asked her about the letter. She says she has not seen it and has not participated in any discussions with other trustees about the state board or AB469.

With the state Board of Ed’s decision to allow the trustees to choose a subcommittee representative, it’s unlikely that Ford or Guzman or Cavazos will be included in anything.

The withholding of information from fellow board members that is pertinent to their job duties may actually be a violation of open meeting law. At the very least, it is an egregious ethical violation. It smacks of autocracy and retaliation.

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Carrie Kaufman
Carrie Kaufman

Broadcast, digital and print journalist Carrie Kaufman writes the You're Overthinking It newsletter on Substack. She has covered the Clark County School District for public radio and The Nevada Voice since 2015.

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