Former Counsel Sues Washoe School Chief, District

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The former lawyer for the Washoe County School District filed a lawsuit Friday against the district and Superintendent James Hager for wrongful termination.

In the suit filed in U.S. District Court, Jeffrey Blanck claims he was fired after questioning the legality of Hager's using school district money to donate $2,200 to the nonprofit group United Way.

It comes a day after Hager, who is on United Way's northern Nevada board of directors, repaid the district to try to quell the controversy.

Among other things, the suit alleges breach of contract, free speech infringements, defamation and denial of due process.

Blanck also asserts he was fired in retaliation for whistleblower activity. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

The lawsuit comes a day after Hager repaid the donations to the district, saying he wanted to put an end to the controversy.

Though the donations were approved by the school board and deemed legal by the district attorney, "The perception held by some is that they may somehow have been inappropriate," Hager said Thursday in a letter to the board.

The donations included one made in April 2001 for $1,000 and another for $1,200 made last May.

Another $1,200 donation in November was rescinded after Blanck objected.

Blanck then lodged a complaint against Hager at the sheriff's office. District Attorney Richard Gammick said no crime occurred.

A week later, in a Jan. 16 letter, Hager suspended Blanck from his $93,000-a-year job for undisclosed reasons.

"I had some e-mails and some people wrote that they didn't know if these were appropriate," Hager told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "One guy said he was opposed to United Way and I don't want this to become a lightning rod because we have so much work to do in educating our children.

"The sheriff's department said there was no violation of the law and the district attorney said the same thing," Hager said. "There is no sense in arguing over it, so let me repay it and let's move on."

On Wednesday, school officials proposed having an arbitrator try to resolve the dispute between Blanck and Hager. Blanck refused and hired Reno lawyers Shannon Bryant and Jeffrey Dickerson.

Bryant said Hager's repayment gives the perception the original donations to the United Way were improper.

"It certainly doesn't change anything with respect to my client," Bryant said. "In fact, I think it reinforces it. It is an indication that Dr. Hager acknowledges that there is some impropriety in the initial payment."

Jonnie Pullman, school board president, said donations to nonprofit organizations would be suspended until trustees review the policy.

"There are places for donations, a good example is the foster grandparents program," Pullman said Thursday.

"Other government agencies make donations to these agencies because they consider them partners in the vision of that agency."

Vice President Dan Carne suggested the board should refuse to take Hager's money.

"If we can't support United Way with a little $1,000 check, then something is wrong with the values we have as an organization," Carne said.

"The United Way supports families, kids and education. To say that we don't want to support their mission, which is supporting ours, is absurd."