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Nye County school superintendent to leave district in June

Updated May 30, 2023 - 7:39 am

After months of back and forth, the superintendent of the Nye County School District will leave his position this summer, after school board trustees rescinded the contract they reached with him in December.

Chelsy Fischer, a board trustee, confirmed Thursday that the board had decided not to renew Superintendent Warren Shillingburg’s contract during a May 17 meeting.

Fischer declined to comment further.

After Nye trustees voted in December to extend his contract, Shillingburg was set to continue to lead Nye schools until 2026, with a pay raise of $30,000 annually.

However, after a complaint was filed with the state attorney general’s office in January, Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi determined that the board’s closed-session meeting to discuss Shillingburg’s renewal violated Nevada’s open meeting laws.

At Kunzi’s recommendation, the board voted in April to void their initial decision.

Shillingburg did not respond to a request for comment. His contract expires on June 30.

‘Raised red flags’

In a Dec. 12 email exchange obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Shillingburg wrote to then-Board President Teresa Stoddard that he would not attend an upcoming meeting where trustees were meant to discuss the possible renewal of his contract.

“The more I think about it, I feel I need to say something to the Board about why I will not be there on Wednesday,” Shillingburg wrote. “I will send a simple text on Wednesday morning stating that I do not feel well and will not be at the Board meeting. That way no one can use my absence as a reason to think I do not care about the contract.”

“That’s fine with me. Whatever makes you the most comfortable,” Stoddard replied. “I have high hopes for this meeting, but I’m also trying to be as prepared as possible with responses to any questions that may come up.”

A couple of days later, at the Dec. 14 meeting, the board went into a closed session and voted 4-3 to approve a new contract that would have extended Shillingburg’s contract through June 2026.

The superintendent’s salary was raised from $150,000 to $180,000 a year, with a 3 percent annual increase beginning in July 2024.

Kunzi said an unknown party filed a complaint against the board to the Nevada attorney general’s office on Jan. 9, claiming that the closed session meeting before the vote to extend the superintendent’s contract violated Nevada’s open meeting law.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but Kunzi, who was brought in to serve as the board’s counsel in 2023, determined that there was a violation.

In a closed session, elected officials may discuss a person’s “character, alleged misconduct, professional competence, or physical or mental health,” according to the attorney general’s office. However, Kunzi said that doesn’t apply when the elected body is discussing a county executive officer who reports to them, such as a superintendent.

“The superintendent cannot be discussed in closed session. That’s one of the very clear requirements of the open meeting law,” he said.

While he didn’t find the violations willful, the district attorney said that — were he legally advising the school board at the time — a review of the meeting’s agenda beforehand would have “raised red flags.”

“I would have certainly started asking some questions and could have prevented this from happening,” Kunzi said.

If an investigation by the attorney general’s office found violations of the open meeting law, it would void the action made in closed session, Kunzi said. Since Kunzi determined there was a violation, he recommended that the board cancel the renewal of Shillingburg’s contract as a preventive move to show their recognition of the mistake.

In an April 20 special meeting, the board of trustees, led by new president Bryan Wulfenstein, approved a motion by newly-elected trustee Nathan Gent to void approval of the contract in December.

Wulfenstein and Gent did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Student performance still flagging

Before taking the top job in Nye County, Shillingburg was an associate superintendent at the Higley Unified School District in Arizona.

In the minutes of a June 2020 meeting, Nye County board trustees noted their impressions of the then-applicant for the superintendent position: He said he wanted to work closely with parents, liked the county’s strategic plan and was in it for “the long haul.”

The school district announced Shillingburg as their next superintendent later that month. The following September, he said he aimed to update the district’s strategic plan with objectives and measurable targets.

However, nearly two years later, the superintendent never provided a strategic plan to the county. In an October 2022 meeting, Shillingburg said he would be happy to provide a plan more than two years into his tenure, but would not do so without a contract extension, as he said the plan should not be tied to him if he wasn’t employed by the district, according to the meeting minutes.

Meanwhile, student performance in Nye County has not recovered from pre-pandemic levels. The chronic absenteeism rate was more than 14 percentage points higher in 2021-2022 than in 2018-2019.

While the graduation rate in 2022 was slightly higher than the state average, Nye County elementary, middle, and high school students tested well below the state average in math and English language arts proficiency in 2021-2022, according to numbers from the Nevada Department of Education.

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