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Politics and Policy

The Race For Washoe School Board

Photo of high school lockers.
Alexa Ard

The Washoe County school board has had its fair share of controversy, with everything from budget woes to serious allegations against individual members. And now, three seats on the board are up for grabs. Our reporter Jacob Solis sat down with Sam Gross, education reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal, to find out more. 

Can you explain what the school board does, what kind of things they're in charge of, and why people should care who's on it?

So the school board is basically the bosses of the Washoe County School District. It's a seven-person board, and as you said, 3 seats are up for grabs. They're charged with making decisions around the budget, they hire and fire the superintendent, they make all the policy around education in Washoe County--they are in charge of education here.

So let's break down each race. As you mentioned, there are three seats. How many candidates are we looking at the board?

We're looking at eight. It was originally nine, but one of the candidates has already dropped out.

And what kind of candidates are they? Are they experienced? Are they green? Do they have experience in education?

It's actually overwhelmingly green. There's actually only one incumbent running, Debra Feemster. She's a current school board member. Everybody else is concerned parents, concerned members of the community, people who just want to pitch in and help.

Is that pretty normal?

That's a fair question. The last school board race was packed. There were, I think, more than 20 candidates that ran, and that was a very mixed bag, but it just kind of depends on the election year.

Does it seem like there are any clear front runners right now?

Well, there are definitely candidates that are more organized than others. Some standouts to me are Ryan Gonda, running for District F, an at-large seat. That means that it covers pretty much the eastern half of Washoe County. If you draw a line right around South Virginia Street and look east, that's District F. He's very organized. He was a former school board member for a very brief time after a school board member in 2016 had to step down.

Another one that stands out is Debra Feemster, running for District C. She's a current school board candidate; she's an incumbent. And then Dian Vanderwell in District B, she's another very well organized candidate.

And would you say the organization is really what matters here, when it's telling who's going to have a solid chance come Election Day?

Yeah, when it comes to school board, organization is generally a pretty good indicator because of the fact that you get a lot of people who are running for office for the first time. So, you get a lot of people who just put their name in the bag because they feel like they want to, and then they don't fundraise, they don't really put organization behind it, they don't really start an actual campaign.

So, when you're going into the primaries, you actually have to pay attention to who is organized, who's fundraising, who's running an actual campaign.

Let's get into some of the issues. This school board has been plagued by controversy for some time now. They violated open meeting law, individual members have been caught up with their own scandals like sexual harassment or corporal punishment. Through your reporting, how do you gauge community trust of this board, and are candidates discussing this trust issue?

Trust is a difficult thing to gauge. A lot of times, we look at social media and the chatter that goes on on our stories, but a lot of times you get mostly negative feedback there. But as you had mentioned, there have been quite a few times in the past where this board has breached the public trust through open meeting law violations and things like that — those are things that have been recognized by the attorney general's office.

And there does seem to be kind of a culture of distrust in the school district right now. For more than a decade, the school district has had a budget in the red.

How are the candidates talking about that? Are there any specific changes people are mentioning?

Fiscal issues are a huge theme in this race. There are a number of candidates that are looking at how the school district is spending the WC-1 sales tax dollars. There's been a lot of criticism there, a lot of skepticism around how the funds are being used and if they're being used in the correct way. And, of course, there's this 11-year-long budget deficit that's been going on, and there's a lot of different people with different opinions on how to fix that.

All in all, it seems like financial issues are a big, big issue being talked about.

But there's no consensus between the candidates on what should be done?

No, not so much.

What other kinds of issues are these candidates bringing up?

A big one, at least in our reporting, was around the gender-neutral bathrooms that are being proposed for new schools in the WCSD. It's something you're going to see in all of the new schools being built in the future.

Basically, there's going to be no men's and women's restrooms; it's going to be an open-air restroom with a series of single stalls that are going to be closed off. Parents are very concerned and a lot of these candidates running for office are concerned as well.