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CCSD legal settlements come at high cost to whistle-blowers and taxpayers

Posted: 4:24 PM, Jan 18, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-21 20:35:05Z
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LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — At 13 Action News we're committed to elevating Las Vegas -- in part by raising the bar on education in partnership with the Clark County School District.

But it's not always easy and it's not always pretty, especially when it comes to accountability.

In this 13 investigation, Darcy Spears tells the story of a career district employee who sits on our Raising the Bar committee and how becoming a whistle-blower came at a hefty price to her and to taxpayers.

"What we wanted, including myself, was for them to look at it and fix the problem."

That's all Elena Rodriguez and fellow staffers wanted when they blew the whistle in 2012 on unethical behavior -- school cameras being used for spying instead of security.

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"It just makes you feel like... You're just creeped out," one employee who asked not to be identified told us at the time. "It's just like big brother is always watching."

"No one in their right mind would believe that a principal was recording all those individuals," Rodriguez said in 2012.

At the time, employees at the Academy for Individualized Study high school say their principal and others in school administration were watching and listening to everything they did and said at the specialized alternative education school.

Rodriguez served as assistant principal at AIS in the 2010/2011 school year. Anita Wilbur was AIS' principal.

"I counted about 25 cameras," Rodriguez said in our initial investigation. "She put two cameras per room -- registrar's, counselor's office, we already had the five in the main office. She also put them in the special ed classroom, the computer lab..."

There was even one hidden inside a plant in the principal's office, which we addressed with then-district spokesperson Amanda Fulkerson.

Darcy Spears: Why did she need a hidden camera in the plant in her office?
Amanda Fulkerson: Um, that camera was pointed at the door of her office. It's absolutely there.
Darcy: Why hide it in a plant?
Amanda: That's a good question. That's not one that I can answer.

Employees we spoke to say their concerns fell on deaf ears.

"It makes me believe that the word transparency doesn't have the same meaning for me that it does for the district and the word accountability doesn't have the same meaning." Rodriguez said. "I mean, I had to actually go to channel 13 to get this information out."

Now, new leaders are paying the price for the district's past.

"Thank God that we had a change in both the superintendent and the head of general counsel at the school district so they started looking at all these cases that had been going on--people like myself that really didn't want to sue the district, they really wanted the district to just fix the issue and the issue wasn't fixed," Rodriguez said.

After she complained about the cameras at AIS, Rodriguez was demoted with a substantial pay cut.

She filed a lawsuit about that and previous issues involving discrimination and retaliation by a supervisor when she raised concerns while working in the district's Purchasing department.

"People are given, let's say, negative evaluations to kind of send a message to others, you know, you cannot become a whistle-blower, you cannot say these things because we're going to come after you," Rodriguez explained.

The district fought her in various courts for six years and rejected a settlement offer of $160,000 in 2016, only to continue racking up legal fees and finally approving a quarter-million-dollar settlement in late November, 2018. Add in all their outside legal fees and the total cost to taxpayers came to $714,894.63.

"When they're willing to do that in the face of severe budget deficits, how do we weigh those two things and explain it in a way that makes sense to people?" Spears asked Rodriguez.

"It doesn't really make sense to me," Rodriguez answered.

From hidden cameras and whistle-blower retaliation to bullying and sexual misconduct, CCSD settlements from 2017 through 2018 cost taxpayers more than $8.1 million.

Trustees approved a settlement in September that included $5 million to two victims of Jeremiah Mazo , an elementary school music teacher convicted of molesting students. A third person in the case got $2.05 million.

Also in September, Jason and Jennifer Lamberth got a $700,000 settlement. The couple accused the district of failing to deal with reported bullying that allegedly resulted in their 13-year-old daughter's suicide.

In July, $190,000 went to a parent and student who sued in 2015 over alleged sexual harassment by a Foothill High School teacher.

In 2017, the district paid $250,000 to settle a 2013 case in which two teachers were accused of intoxicating and having sex with a 16-year-old Basic High School student.

And, there are are other costly settlements with other whistle-blowers to the tune of $1.4 million dating back to the early 1990s.

Teacher Trudi Lytle sued CCSD in 1992 and won $135,000 in damages. She later sued again and won over $400,000. CCSD's cost in outside legal fees for the second lawsuit was $1.1 million.

Lytle had issues with a special program at Marion Earl Elementary. She shared them with lawmakers and the media. She was fired but later returned and then made new allegations of retaliation including finding an article in her mailbox about a teacher whose body was found in a dumpster.

Kelly Verna taught at Burkholder MS in the 1990s. The fire department issued citations for fire code violations based on her complaint about an overcrowded classroom. She claimed retaliation in the form of reprimands and termination. Lawsuits ultimately cost CCSD more than $300,000 in outside attorney fees and Verna herself was awarded $70,000.

"Case after case after case there's enough evidence to show that the district chose to fight when they shouldn't have," Rodriguez said.

As part of her settlement agreement, Rodriguez retired January 11 after a nearly 30-year career.

She remains optimistic that the tide is turning.

"I see the light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully the district is going in the right direction, finally."

The money for all these settlements comes from the district's Risk Management claims budget.

Click here for a list of of cases and their costs from 2015 to now.

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