Douglas County schools see high fees, rocky meetings after hiring lawyer Joey Gilbert
Two months after the Douglas County School Board hired Reno lawyer and Republican politician Joey Gilbert as its legal counsel in a contentious split vote, trustees on the board remain divided over the legality of Gilbert’s contract and the use of his services, which have cost the district thousands of dollars in excess of his firm’s monthly retainer.
Gilbert’s firm charged the district — which serves about 5,500 students in a deep-red county 50 miles south of Reno — nearly $36,000 last month. That included $7,500 for a monthly retainer fee agreed to by the board in July, and thousands of dollars for services provided by Kiera Sears, an unlicensed attorney based in Reno, for researching state law.
In a raucous seven-hour long meeting that lasted until nearly midnight on Tuesday, trustees argued over the use of Gilbert’s firm and payment for services that had not been agreed to by the entire school board, while the two sides often spoke over one other and the board president repeatedly admonished the crowd for clapping and cheering. Superintendent Keith Lewis and several board members also quarreled with Sears over proposed changes to board policies.
“We are not being transparent with the public and with public funds,” said Trustee Carey Kangas. “Why don’t we just call this what it is? This is a political coup to take over Douglas County School District and hold our children hostage to a political ideology.”
The board voted 5-2 to approve payment of Gilbert’s invoices, with support primarily from the trustees who also supported Gilbert’s initial contract.
Trustee Linda Gilkerson, who voted against Gilbert’s contract, expressed concerns that the high costs would exceed the district’s budget for legal counsel, which she said was about $160,000 annually. Expenses for Gilbert’s firm are on track to exceed that amount significantly, potentially reaching more than $340,000 by the end of the fiscal year if they keep the same pace.
Meanwhile, parents and local residents have also been divided over the hiring of Gilbert — a former boxer and politically divisive figure who, in 2022, finished second in the GOP primary for governor before launching an unsuccessful lawsuit that challenged the legitimacy of the election. Prior to that, Gilbert made waves in conservative circles in Nevada for lawsuits challenging COVID restrictions.
During Tuesday’s meeting, members in the audience repeatedly cheered comments from trustees Gilkerson and Kangas that were critical of Gilbert and the fees other board members supported. Kendra Wilson, a resident of the county since 2016, described his hiring as “irresponsibly spending taxpayer money on pretty much a celebrity attorney” and said she was concerned about a political agenda being pushed in the county’s schools.
“If this board continues to degrade our schools, our ratings will deteriorate. And if that happens, I won’t put my kids in school here,” she said.
But those vocal opponents of Gilbert may not represent the majority view in rural Douglas County where, in 2020, Republican former President Donald Trump defeated Democratic President Joe Biden by a margin of nearly 30 percentage points. The fight over Gilbert has even played out on the pages of The Record-Courier, where some residents have argued in letters to the editor that Gilbert is keeping “woke” ideology out of the schools, while others have criticized the board’s decision to hire Gilbert as politicized.
At the Aug. 8 board meeting, some members of the public also expressed concern that hiring Gilbert was related to board members’ pursuit of a policy that would block transgender girls from participating in girls sports and using girls’ locker rooms and restrooms.
Trustees question legal fees from unlicensed attorney
Gilbert is no stranger to finding work through Nevada’s local governments. In August 2021, Lander County commissioners approved a retainer agreement with Gilbert to represent the county “in relation to voter integrity and election fraud,” but the contract was soon canceled after Gilbert stepped down, and no lawsuits arose from the brief partnership.
Gilbert’s firm primarily has experience in criminal defense and personal injury cases, and he acknowledged during the July meeting that he is not an expert in education law, though he said he was taking classes on special education policy.
But Sears appears to have taken on greater responsibility than Gilbert in serving as counsel for the board.
Kangas said that in the invoices submitted by Gilbert’s firm, which were not made available in public board meeting materials, Sears “was referenced about 50 times in those invoices to the tune of about $21,000,” while Gilbert was listed 39 times.
Gilbert’s firm charges the district a retainer fee of $7,500 per month, with additional work charged at a rate of $325 per hour. That is a significant increase from the district’s previous law firm, Maupin, Cox & LeGoy, a Reno-based firm that was replaced in July and charged a monthly retainer fee of $5,000 for general business, along with a $225 hourly rate for litigation and special projects.
Previous board meeting materials show that Maupin, Cox & LeGoy — which had represented the district for more than 20 years and has experience in education law — filed invoices totaling between $9,000 and $17,000 per month last fall, less than half of the $36,000 charged by Gilbert’s firm after its first month.
Gilkerson also highlighted two charges from Sears that totaled more than $1,700 for “researching NRS241.”
“You know what NRS241 is? The Open Meeting Law. Don’t you think that they would know that? I mean, that just boggles my mind, the money that we’re spending,” Gilkerson said.
Gilbert and Sears argued that the charges were needed because the school board is facing multiple complaints over alleged violations of the Open Meeting Law. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office said the office has “received seven complaints against Douglas County School Board this year, though one of those complaints was dismissed for failing to state a claim under Open Meeting Laws.”
“Sounds like you’re charging us to train yourself,” Kangas told Gilbert and Sears.
And while Gilkerson also highlighted an invoice from Sears charging more than $1,100 for attending a previous meeting virtually that Gilbert attended in person, Gilbert later said that Sears “is not being compensated tonight,” and that “she’s here at my request.”
Trustee Tony Magnotta also questioned Sears’ work, saying “is this an open checkbook that you can go to 800 other lawyers and we’re gonna get billed for that?”
Gilbert responded that Sears works for his law firm, and justified her billing $325 per hour for her services — the same as Gilbert — by saying “she’s an expert in legislative and, you know, basically statutory affairs.” He also noted that his firm generally invoices her work at almost $475 per hour.
Though Sears has a law degree, according to comments made during the board meeting, she is not a licensed attorney with the State Bar of Nevada. She is also not listed on the staff page of Joey Gilbert Law’s website, though a 2020 memo she sent to the Cannabis Compliance Board lists her as an “executive” at the firm.
Sears and Gilbert have a yearslong history of working together. In 2016, the two formed a political action committee called Happy Health Veterans to support providing legal access to medical marijuana for veterans, and during the 2015 legislative session, the two were registered together as lobbyists for a firm called Prestige Worldwide NV. Sears also previously owned Helios, a cannabis cultivator in Reno that had its license suspended in 2019, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Gilbert and Sears did not respond to requests for comment.
Alongside the questions about Sears’ work, Gilkerson raised concerns about expenses for Gilbert’s firm stemming from communications with other trustees and “bus driver association negotiations” that she said were not authorized by the board.
“We were charged $3,055 for negotiations, none of which should have happened,” she said.
With the meeting derailed by heated exchanges over Gilbert’s contract, the trustees failed to act on most other agenda items, which included a wide ranging overhaul of board bylaws, first reported by CarsonNow. However in a 5-1 vote roughly 20 minutes before midnight, when the meeting was required to end, the trustees approved a decision to suspend a set of provisions within four bylaws that some critics panned as stripping power from the superintendent.
Amid a protracted argument between Sears, trustees and members of the public over the authority of the board to take such action, Gilkerson asked for a delay in the vote, though her request was not granted.
“It’s hard to sit here at 10 [p.m.] and try to digest some of this. It’s impossible and it’s not fair. I think that what we need to do is we need to postpone this, all of this, and get our feet back under us and let us take a look at what you’re saying because I’m not sure that you’re not interpreting the law the way you want to interpret it. That’s all. And that’s just my opinion,” she said.
Other efforts to alter the bylaws — including a proposal to require that “all communications from the district to the students, their parents and/or guardians, the press and members of the community” be approved by the board before being sent out — seemed to be on pause until the next board meeting expected to take place next month.