Jim Clark: Is there a hidden agenda with Pedro Martinez gaffe?

The saga of Washoe School Superintendent Pedro Martinez and six dysfunctional school board members continues.

Earlier this month, having excluded Martinez supporter Trustee Estela Gutierrez, the six conspired in a closed meeting to terminate the superintendent.

They then alternatively threatened him, tried to bribe him and finally fired him only to find out their meeting was illegal. Backing water they then characterized their action as having placed Martinez on paid leave.

The ensuing public uproar caused the six trustees to declare their act legally void and to reinstate Martinez. What now?

It’s hard to see how the school board can put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Martinez has filed a lawsuit against the six trustees and the school district seeking damages for breach of contract and unlawful termination; the Reno Gazette-Journal has filed a request with the Nevada Attorney General for investigation of violation of the open meeting law; a serious and apparently well-financed effort is under way to recall at least some of the offending trustees from office; a virtual army of public dignitaries and officials (including First Lady Kathleen Sandoval and Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey [R-Reno]) showed up to a hastily called school board meeting to castigate the trustees; and at least one official has hinted that the board’s action may have constituted a violation of a federal civil rights law.

What is not clear is just why the board committed this stunning gaffe. It is pretty evident that board members engaged in micromanaging the school district.

They changed the reporting relationships of the general counsel and chief financial officer, taking them out from under Martinez and having them report directly to the board.

There is additional evidence that the board took umbrage at some of Martinez’ actions. Specifically, when news broke that 10 elementary schools with high rates of poverty and language challenges were underperforming a similar elementary school whose principal was drawing excellent academic performance from his students Martinez summarily replaced the principals of the poor-achieving schools without prior approval from the board.

It seems like they just didn’t want Martinez doing his job.

But is there a hidden agenda? These differences do not seem so stark as to cause trustees to make a laughing stock of themselves, expose themselves to civil and even criminal liability and cause irreparable damage to relations between the school district and Washoe County’s huge Latino community (the only Hispanic on the board, Estela Gutierrez, was excluded from the illegal meeting; she did not run for reelection and her term ends this November).

Martinez came to Nevada from his position as chief financial officer of the Chicago School District, then headed by Arne Duncan. Duncan, who was subsequently appointed U.S. Secretary of Education by President Obama, is an education reformer.

He espouses charter schools, school choice, educational excellence and running government school districts based on free market principles. He opposes traditional systems of teacher tenure and seniority and favors merit pay for the best teachers.

Having come from this environment it was easy for Martinez to embrace Gov. Sandoval’s education reform program (which mirrors Secretary Duncan’s). To the extent he was able he began to apply principles of education reform to the Washoe School District (example: removing the underperforming principals).

Government employee unions, particularly teacher unions, are very protective of seniority systems, tenure and demanding uniform treatment for every member regardless of merit.

To protect their turf they engage in local politics, often having a strong hand in who gets elected to governing boards.

My sources tell me that these differences played a big part in the Martinez firing. The public clamor played a big part in his rehiring. We need to keep that pressure up.

Washoe County has a lot to lose if Martinez is forced to cave in.

Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees.

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