Contentious Douglas County school board race has deep roots
As early voting wraps up on Friday, the school board race has been one of the hottest local contests in the county, filling up the letters to the editor column and riling social media.
Challengers Susan Jansen and Katherine Dickerson are seeking seats held by School Board Trustees Robbe Lehmann and Heather Jackson.
The third race in the campaign involves David Burns and Roberta Butterfield fighting over the redistricted seat held by term-limited trustee Ross Chichester. Butterfield came out of the primary election ahead, but not far enough to achieve the 50 percent plus one required to win a nonpartisan race outright.
But the campaign predates any of the candidates appearing on the ballot this season.
Election Day will be just a day short of a year since Douglas County School Board trustees voted to lay to rest the issue of critical race theory.
The Nov. 9, 2021, meeting was the first where there weren’t dozens of protesters, in part because they left for a rally for then candidate for governor Dr. Fred Simon and U.S. Senate candidate Capt. Sam Brown. Neither man’s campaign survived the Republican primary.
Without the crowd, school board trustees expressed what they thought about the previous two months of meetings where scores of people came to public comment to argue for the school board to ban any discussion of the theory.
They then voted to lay the issue to rest, which prompted the effort to recruit school board candidates who appear on the ballot next week.
The action also prompted three accusations of open meeting law violations by Gardnerville resident Jeanne Shizuru, over the Nov. 9 meeting and an effort on Nov. 22 to cure that complaint.
According to the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, a Dec. 28, 2021, complaint from Shizuru was found not to be a violation of the law.
The Record-Courier has filed a public records request for a copy of the dismissal letter.
The earlier complaints are still under investigation, according to Deputy Communications Director Alcinia Winters.
At least one spark for the current contentious school board race occurred after then Carson Valley Middle School Librarian Paul Jensen uploaded a video in September 2021 calling out the district for a book called “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.”
He also raised issues with materials from the district’s professional development department.
“I do believe that critical race theory is pure evil and it must be stopped,” Jensen said in a Sept. 13 email informing Superintendent Keith Lewis he had produced the video.
Those videos prompted Trustee Doug Englekirk to call for meetings to discuss whether critical race theory was actually being taught to students.
Jensen started work with the Douglas County School District in August 2019. He resigned mid-year in 2021.
In an Oct. 19, 2021, letter to school board trustees, Education Services Director Rommelle Cronin-Mack said that Jensen objected to the book being used in the professional development classes he took as a level 1 teacher.
She said that professional learning specialists offered him an opportunity to use a different book, but he declined.
“The summer in-service course, Mr. Jensen references in his video was just one of many optional courses offered to DCSD employees this summer,” Cronin-Mack said in a letter to the school board. “Because DCSD made this course available to school counselors to take to be able to earn their credits for recertification does not mean the course description represents the beliefs of the school district, which Mr. Jensen inaccurately claims at least seven times during the video.”
Cronin-Mack said both she and Lewis reached out to Jensen after being made aware of the video.
In the wake of Jensen’s video, the district held two town hall meetings about the theory that saw around 110 people participate over the course of five hours, including candidates for state and federal office.
That drew national media attention and on Oct. 31, 2021, CNN aired a segment focused entirely on the debate in Douglas County.
The Record-Courier spoke to CNN producers about the segment, and they said that they reached out to the district.
That prompted Simon for Governor Campaign Manager Nick Maier to write that Lewis “enthusiastically accepted CNN’s offer to come, film and broadcast a news story about the Douglas County School District’s Town Halls on Critical Race Theory.”
Maier, who lent Dave Nelson’s Nevada1st PAC $50,000, was also seeking candidates to run for the school board.
Maier and Nelson both served briefly on the Douglas County Planning Commission before Maier resigned to focus on the Simon campaign.
Nelson recruited school board candidate David Burns and served as his campaign manager before he decided to start the political action committee, which could pay for campaign materials without being subject to individual donation limitations.
According to the minutes of the Nov. 22, 2021, meeting, Lewis said Jensen never spoke with the district about his concerns before he released the video and that he rebuffed offers to discuss it afterwards. He said Jensen could have refused or replaced the book that Jensen had an issue with as a librarian.
It’s been almost a year since the book Jensen called out was removed from the teacher training after five of the 42 employees surveyed had a concern about the material.
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