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Indy Q&A: Traci Davis, Washoe County School District superintendent, on digital days, resignation petition

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
EducationLocal Government
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Washoe County School District Superintendent Traci Davis is not backing down.

In recent weeks, Davis has faced criticism over the use of digital days, in which students are required to make up work at home during snow days to avoid adding more days to the school year. She has also faced questions about transparency and the culture of the district. But Davis, the district’s first African-American superintendent, argued that the data from her tenure told another story.

“I started this journey when we had a graduation rate of 66 percent,” said Davis, who was promoted to the role in 2014 after working as a deputy. “It is now 84 percent. I can tell you that there have been missteps by the media which people did not investigate, which causes them to make opinions that are not true, starting back from when I was appointed to the [position].”

Davis said an online petition calling for her resignation did not bother her.

“That's not the first petition,” Davis said. “People come and they talk about the petition and they talk about factual data, or what they think is factual. ‘Get rid of her because we are ranked the lowest in the country.’ When did I get in charge of the state? There's so much [that is not true about] it, so I'm not bothered by [the petition], because I know the truth and the facts.”

Davis said she doesn’t spend that much time on Twitter listening to all of the critical chatter about the district, either. When asked whether she used the social media platform, Davis said she recently tweeted that her nephew, a senior guard for the University of Northern Colorado, was named the Big Sky Conference’s Most Valuable Player averaging 23.8 points per game.

“This kid’s going to the NBA,” Davis said during the interview. “This is a great time for my family. I'm not worried about a petition. I'm going to the finals. What are you talking about?”

Nevada Independent reporter Daniel Rothberg and photojournalist David Calvert sat down with Davis in her school district office to discuss her critics, the petition and where she sees the school district headed. Their interview has been edited for clarity, context (in bold italics) and length.

Last year, the district implemented “digital days” — where students work from home during snow days — to avoid the disruption of adding school days to the calendar at the end of the year. The days proved controversial among some parents and eventually led to a back-and-forth between the school district and the Nevada Department of Education, which said the district’s plan was in violation of state law, as the Reno Gazette Journal reported in February.  What did you make of some of the reaction to digital days?

I don't think there's a lot of confusion necessarily. I think there's a small group of people who had a loud voice. But what I'll tell you is that parents like digital day. What the public or those people fail to realize is we piloted digital day for a full year two years ago in Incline [Village]... I think we followed the steps. They were well documented. I think there was a change in administrations with the state department. The current interim state Superintendent Jonathan Moore was really good about leaning in and in digging in and saying, "How can we [make this] work?" Because we were asked to re-submit our plans. My thing is if we're re-submitting our plans, how is it illegal, right? That doesn't make sense, the long process of it.

Didn't Jonathan Moore basically say that digital days were in violation of state statute?

We received a letter from [former state Superintendent] Steve Canavero, but we had meetings with Jonathan Moore and we re-submitted our plan. I think he did his due diligence and didn't just sign off. He did what he had to do was necessary, and it came back to say that it was a violation. But let's be clear…, we had a signed approval document for [digital] days.

From Canavero?

Yeah. So how do you have something that's signed and you implement it for a year to stop [it]? Overall what I'll say is this: I'm grateful for the partnership we will have with the state because I think they see the need for digital days. There are some intricacies within the law.

I think what you're going to see is that there are going to be legislative measures because digital days are bigger than Washoe. Digital days are about the state. There are a lot of counties in Northern Nevada that need a digital day sometimes… This is the New Nevada. There are over 20 states that have digital days when there is inclement weather. We can talk about 21st century learning... and all of this engagement, but we can't get a digital day for the weather?

What are some of your priorities in the legislature?

Our main, main focus is per-pupil funding: the Distributive School Account.

Given the structural deficit, what happens if you can’t get more funding?

So, the potential for the structural deficit to still exist could happen but we'll look for ways to eliminate it. And remember that I inherited the structural deficit, and I think we've gotten that down by $30 — maybe $40 million — last year. We put a big chunk in it. So the structural deficit itself has been greatly reduced. If the money doesn't change for the kids and you have the rising cost to run the business, something has to happen. But I think that Governor Sisolak and the legislators are 100 percent looking at this because they know that that is a problem in Nevada. So I don't think it's some secret. People are dedicated to the kids, dedicated to making this better. And part of that is increasing the [distributive school account].

The district also came under criticism earlier this year when a long-time Galena High principal and a vice principal were placed on leave with little explanation from the district. The principal resigned in February, the Reno Gazette Journal reported. What do you make of the criticism of how that was handled at least publicly?

The criticism that I won't release information? Every employee is afforded due process. That due process is afforded to him when it is a personnel matter, had nothing to do with kids. So if people are mad, then the question is: If you do something, [should] your employer put all of your personnel files out? So for some reason those employees weren't afforded due process rights?

So you've said that to parents and you've mentioned that it doesn't have to do with kids and it's not a safety issue, but people still keep pushing back. Why are there parents in this district that don't believe the school district?

Historically there has been this disengagement. People say we're not transparent. Well, I think since I've been here, we're more transparent than [ever]. You get to see salaries. You can see my credit card. How much transparency do they want? Part of it’s social media. People want to believe what is not true, right? "The superintendent doesn't live here." Okay, whoever said that: prove it. Show me pictures. Show me something. No, you can't. Because the superintendent does live here. So then you end up running amuck because people are circulating rumors.

But the privacy of employees is important, and the due process. Listen, what do you wanna know [about the Galena administrative leave]? What do you really want to know? It doesn't have to do with a kid… We've been honest about that. We tell you it's an employee, [about an] adult, a due process [and] personnel issue. You just want to know what happened.

Have you received any support from other employees within the district?

Oh tons of emails. Tons. In fact tons of emails that say: "We know it's hard on you. We know you're getting attacked. But thank you for protecting our due process rights. Thank you for protecting families." It's not about wrong or right. Employees get due process across this country. It's not just Washoe County School District.

Do you think it's difficult to be a student of color in this district?

Absolutely. And I'm not saying that because I believe that. There's data to support it. So not what I feel. We have data to support that students of color don't feel the same kind of success in the district so we have to work on it. That's not an opinion. We know that from the kids.

So how does that change happen?

We have call to action around equity in our district. And it's deliberate and intentional. And we all have to be trained... There are these things that we have that people don't even know, right? Implicit biases. We all have them. That has nothing to do with the color of your skin, right?...

We had this challenge when we started because there was a statement made that we were doing equity work because the superintendent was black. It was like wow, I didn't know equity work was just about race. That's a big "ah-ha" for me. No. We're doing equity work because one: it's right. And two because there are inequitable practices and that doesn't have to do with color of skin. That could be poverty, that could be language, that could be weight, that could be disability. I mean the list goes on. So the question is are we affording all kids a great opportunity, and how do we improve upon that? And I think there's 8,000 employees that say, "Yeah, we are improving upon that."

I really am curious where you think the petition is coming from because it is so divergent from the facts and data that you are laying out here.

You'd have to go ask those people… I have this whole concept about who I am, right? My work is going to be my work. From the day I started teaching, no one's going to take back anything that I believe about kids and how we work with kids. The data is the data, right?... I have text messages that say: "We actually read the petition and we thought it was funny because there was nothing to it." ... What's the meat of it?

I’m wondering that and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that.

Oh I’ve tried to figure it out. Remember, I’m a continuous learner.

Do you think about it a lot, or is it a small part of your —

Think about what?

The petition and things like —

Only when you ask me. I don’t know how you battle lies on social media. Let’s get down to it. I’m not a troll. And I’m not going to ever be a troll. That’s not where I live my life.

Do you have a Twitter?

Of course I have a Twitter. Yeah. I just tweeted out the other day that my nephew was the MVP of the Big Sky Conference.

Oh nice.

The kid’s going to the NBA. This is a great time for my family. I’m not worried about a petition. I’m going to the finals. What are you talking about. There’s so many more things besides doing good work.

Really? There’s more to life than Twitter?

Yeah, or Facebook or Snapchat or wherever people live their lives.

I do want to talk a little bit about the drug confiscation claims that came up yesterday during the meeting. At Tuesday’s school board meeting, a former Hug High principal asked for an investigation into claims that she returned confiscated drugs. The claims were made by the school’s former vice principal, who was fired after asking for a probe into the claims and then rehired when an arbitrator ruled she was wrongly terminated, the Reno Gazette Journal has reported. What is the district’s role at this point?

If there's an allegation that teachers are passing drugs back, then the district will look into that allegation. But remember, everybody waived their rights so we will put that out in the public.

I ask this question to everyone: Do you have any regrets?

Here's what's interesting. If you ask people outside the country about Washoe County School District, you know they think we are one of the most progressive-forward moving districts with the work we've done? With [Social and Emotional Learning], equity, student achievement, geo-mapping, student voice, and on and on and on. So what regrets would I have?

Well I don’t know. I know in my own work —

Do you mean the social part of it, like the media part of it?

Sure. In getting the message out. From anything. From getting the message out to a decision you made, just any sort of… Do you have any sort of regret or anything you would have maybe wanted to do a do-over on?

I wake up every day proud of the work we do. I really do. Are there days when it's tough and are there days when you're like "Well, why would people put that out in the universe?"... I don't think anybody in this job that works in this large of a district is going to say every day is easy. There's always going to be something, right? That's just the nature of the job as superintendent. You're not going to make everybody happy, right?

I actually went online when I had to pull historical stuff. [I said]: "Wow! Nobody's mad at the district when the graduation rate's 50 percent, and it's not the minority kids graduating? Everybody thinks it's such a wonderful place!" Well what's wonderful about it? So I think when you are an agent of change, there's always going to be that. But will I walk out of here knowing that there are a multiple amount of supporters that look like me and that do not look like me that believe in the work the district is doing? That's enough. There's always going to be groups of people [who are frustrated with the school district]... No regrets.

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