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Far-right activist’s efforts galvanize Washoe County School Board races

Trustees, political consultant say the race results show voters don’t want ‘agents of chaos’ on the school board.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education
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The Washoe County School Board primary election results were reaffirming for Beth Smith, the group’s president. 

Voters not only gave Smith another term, they also voted down candidates backed by far-right activist Robert Beadles who she and others see as a threat to the Washoe County School District (WCSD) for their extreme conservative Christian views about school library books and other curriculum.

District A Trustee Jeff Church, who represents southeast Reno and Incline Village, was among the candidates endorsed by Beadles who were defeated. He’s been a controversial figure since he joined the board in 2021. Most recently, the board approved spending as much as $500,000 to defend the district against lawsuits launched by or supported by Church. 

“The community is very clear about what their expectations are for the leaders of their children's education, and that is not agents of chaos,” Smith said. 

Beadles did not respond to requests for comment. Church declined to be interviewed, but said in an emailed statement that he has no control over who endorses him. He also noted that Beadles didn’t donate to his campaign. 

“He seems like a good man with good intentions and it’s his money to spend as he chooses but he does not represent the candidates,” Church said in the statement.  

Smith, Trustee Alex Woodley and one of Church’s challengers, Christine Hull, won their races outright after securing more than 50 percent of the votes. The District G race in the general election will not have any Beadles-backed candidates. 

After the primary, Beadles turned his sights to recount efforts that ended without any changes in the results for two races, including the District G.

Trustee Colleen Westlake said Beadles’ efforts also have been causing division among Washoe County Republicans Party, where Beadles serves as a member of the executive committee, resulting in the local party turning its back against those who don’t fall in line with his beliefs. 

Robert Beadles inside the observation area during a recount of ballots at the Washoe County Registrar’s office in Reno on June 30, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Beadles effect

WCSD is among the school districts caught in the crossfire of culture wars growing out of the COVID-19 pandemic that saw opposition to reopening plans and mitigation measures, such as masking. The issues this election cycle include books and policies related to LGBTQ+ students and sex education. 

Beadles is a prominent figure at the center of that political divide. 

In 2021, he spoke at a Washoe County School Board meeting and vowed to use his wealth to remove the trustees. Since then, he’s gotten involved by supporting school board candidates during the past two election cycles through endorsements and campaign donations. 

During the primary, he endorsed a handful of candidates including Church in the District A race; Christopher Tabarez in the District D race against Smith; Bev Stenehjem in the District E race against Woodley; and Paul White in the District G race against Trustee Diane Nicolet. 

White declined to be interviewed for this story. Stenehjem and Tabarez did not respond to requests for comment. 

While Beadles did not contribute to any of their campaigns, he sent mailers on behalf of Tabarez. One mailer depicted Smith, a cancer survivor, as a grim reaper and referred to her as “Death Smith.” Tabarez, a basketball coach at a local Christian private school, said he had no control over the mailers sent by Beadles’ PAC, the Franklin Project. 

It was the same imagery Beadles used in a March 13 post on his blog criticizing the board’s votes to set aside $500,000 to defend the district against lawsuits by Church and not conduct an independent investigation into harassment claims against Church. The claims were brought to light in December by Church, who has said he was falsely accused by board leaders of sexually harassing two district employees. 

Beadles’ candidates’ fundraising efforts didn’t bear much fruit, according to campaign finance reports from the first quarter of the year. Tabarez raised the most among the Beadles-backed candidates, about $1,328. 

But it wasn’t close to what Smith ended the quarter with, about $80,000, $25,000 of which she raised in the first quarter. Her donors included the Washoe Education Association (WEA)’s PAC, which donated $3,000, and the Reno Sparks Association of Realtors PAC, which donated $1,000.

The candidate with the second highest amount of contributions in the first quarter, $15,000, was Hull, who defeated Church and other candidates in the District A race and won the seat outright with 55 percent of the votes compared withChurch, who pulled in 34 percent of the votes. Her contributors included WEA, which donated $3,000, and businessman Eric Denton, who donated $2,500. 

Reno political strategist Riley Sutton, who managed campaigns for several Democratic candidates, including Smith and Hull, said he isn’t surprised by the amount of funds raised by  the school board candidates who prevailed in the primary, despite these races not historically receiving as much attention as higher ticket races such as those for Congress or the presidency. 

Sutton said he heard from many voters on the campaign trail who were concerned with Church’s behavior since he joined the board in 2020, and his previous opposition to a 2016 sales tax increase known as WC-1 to raise funds for school infrastructure that was approved by some of the same voters who Sutton spoke with. PACs backing the initiative raised about $1.4 million to fund the campaign to support the ballot measure, an unprecedented total for a local education election issue. 

He said Beadles-backed candidates, including Church, have renewed voters’ attention on the school board. 

“[Church] was the primary opponent to WC-1, and he has been very vocal about that,” Sutton said. “It woke that coalition up to the danger of him staying on the board and of more people like him being elected to the board.”

Sutton said he heard similar sentiments from voters across the political aisle, including nonpartisan voters and Republicans who aren’t as far right as Beadles. 

“They don't like the personal attacks. They don’t like the hate,” Sutton said, adding that voters mentioned the mailers sent out by Beadles’ PAC targeting Smith and Reno City Councilman Devon Reese

Though she is a conservative, Westlake said she doesn’t support the viewpoints of Beadles — who endorsed her in 2022 — or his candidates, who she thought didn’t have strong ideas. That included Church’s re-election bid. Westlake said she even donated to Smith’s campaign, despite Smith being a Democrat. 

“I'm 62 years old and I have never done that until this year, and it's because of Robert Beadles and it's because of the local GOP,” she said. “They can't offer me a good Republican candidate.” 

Her stance got her ousted from the Washoe County Republican Party last month. The county party cited Westlake’s support to Smith’s campaign and failing to back Church on numerous motions and agenda requests as some of the reasons behind the resolution to oust her. 

Bruce Parks, the county GOP party’s chairman, accused Westlake of not being a conservative, and said Westlake’s voting record has been lockstep with Smith, whom he falsely referred to as a communist. 

Although she identifies as a Republican and a Christian, Westlake said she’s willing to support conservative- and liberal-leaning policies and trustees as long as they benefit WCSD students. 

“I ran on, ‘For the kids’ and I meant that,” she said. “I didn't run on, ‘Support Jeff Church.’ I didn't run on, ‘I'm going to argue with the Democrats that I serve with just for argument's sake’ … but apparently that’s what [the county party] wants.”

Westlake said she had already stopped being involved with the county party two years prior when it started attacking Republican candidates who didn't fall in line with what the organization wanted. That was around the time Beadles came on the scene. 

“They want to define who's allowed to be a Republican so narrowly … and there’s going to be fewer and fewer of them,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s going to be anyone left.”

But Parks argued Beadles’ presence actually has benefited the county party, especially with its reach among local voters. 

“If anything, he's helped bring a bunch of them back into the fold,” he said. 

Washoe County School Board President Beth Smith during a meeting on July 25, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Beyond the primary election 

Smith said though the board’s work hasn’t slowed down amidst the culture wars, it has made some community members fearful of attending meetings alongside conservative activists. 

“They still send us public comment via email, and people talk with us when we're outside of board meetings and at other times, but these extremist groups coming in and hijacking meetings — screaming the F-word and profanities and just effectively losing their mind — are scaring families,” she said. 

Two weeks after the primary, dozens of speakers, including another candidate who ran against Smith, Victoria Myer, showed up to the board’s most recent meeting pushing for certain books, including some with LGBTQ+ themes, to be removed from school libraries. In addition, speakers including Cliff Nellis, who said he was a longtime Washoe County resident with children and grandchildren who attended local private schools, made statements against the LGBTQ+ community, saying their identities “go against human nature” and “against God,” and claimed their identities were the reasons behind the community’s high suicide rates. 

Silver State Equality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, denounced some of the speakers in a June 26 statement, and said two of its staffers attending the board meeting left early after facing harassment from “far-right extremists.” 

“These hateful actions by right-wing extremists exemplify the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric that incites violence and divisiveness,” the group said in the statement. “Their behavior in today’s meeting was abhorrent and inexcusable.”

The primary election results haven’t slowed down Beadles’ efforts. He recently paid about $150,000 for recounts in three races including the school board’s District G race where his candidate, White, lost by almost 6 percentage points. One of the recounts was canceled by the candidate and the other two were completed Tuesday, with the results unchanged. 

Smith said she was glad to see a collective awakening from voters this election cycle on the importance of the school district and paying attention to local school board races. She credits some of this newfound attention to Beadles. 

“I've had many people … reach out to me prior to the election, during the election and after the election here in Washoe County, and said that they had never voted in a Washoe County School District race before, but they did this year because they were more aware,” she said. “So I'm really proud of Washoe County for that.” 

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