The Nevada Independent

Your state. Your news. Your voice.

The Nevada Independent

Indy Q&A: Washoe superintendent says K-12 underfunding won’t be fixed in single session

Amid calls for accountability tied to a recent funding increase, Washoe superintendent said it'll be long before improvements are seen.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education

When Washoe County Superintendent Susan Enfield was considered for the post in 2022, one piece of information from her resume stood out to board members  — her 10-year tenure at her previous school district in Washington. 

During the past 12 years, the district has had five superintendents, including Enfield, who were in the position for six years or less. 

During her interview that spring, Enfield told the board she was no “puddle jumper,” and said, if chosen, she planned to stay for the long haul.

But in November, less than two years after she arrived at the district, Enfield announced she would be resigning from the role Feb. 9 in order to return to Washington to spend more time with family and pursue other opportunities. The school board has since rehired Enfield’s predecessor, Kristen McNeill, to serve as interim superintendent while trustees search for a permanent replacement. 

Prior to Enfield’s arrival to the district, it was facing attacks from far-right conservative Robert Beadles. In 2022, he attempted to recall then-Board President Angie Taylor who later resigned from the board after she was elected as a Nevada assemblywoman. During that same election year, Beadles had financially backed two school board candidates who didn’t win in their races, and his political action committee, the Franklin Project, endorsed a third candidate, Colleen Westlake, who now serves on the board. 

During a December interview, Enfield declined to share more details on what's behind her upcoming departure, but said it was neither planned nor motivated by any issues with the school district where she has worked since July 2022. 

“I was committed to being here for five to seven years because I think that's the minimum that it takes to really get meaningful change done in a school system … but sometimes life presents you with circumstances that change your plans,” she said. 

Despite having a shorter-than-expected tenure, Enfield said she was proud of her role in pushing for more funding for K-12 education and raises for teachers and staff among other efforts to improve conditions within the district. But she acknowledged that there was still more progress to be made on improving student proficiency, particularly after the pandemic.

During the 2021-22 school year, standardized tests showed 34 percent of third to eighth grade students met grade-level standards in math, and about 45 percent of students met grade-level standards in English language arts. 

The district’s new strategic plan aims to raise student proficiency to 75 percent in both subjects. 

Enfield spoke about what she was able to accomplish and what lessons she’s learned over her 17 months as Washoe County schools superintendent. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Washoe County School District Superintendent Susan Enfield (right) listens to students’ speeches during Spanish Springs High School’s graduation inside of the Lawlor Events Center in Reno on June 15, 2023. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent)

You’re among four Nevada superintendents who have resigned or announced their departure in recent months. What do you think is behind this turnover we are seeing in our state and across the country? 

This has never been a job for the faint of heart. None of us gets into the superintendency thinking it's going to be easy. We know that it's hard, hard work. I just think there are so many added layers and nuances to the role that perhaps weren't there several years ago — the pandemic and politics and all of it. 

This is my 13th year serving as a superintendent so I've been at it a long time and what I tell people is that I've always made a clear distinction between the job and the work because the job is the politics and the attacks and the toxicity, but the work of serving children and families is a gift even on the hard days. I think that's what's kept me in this work as long as it has. I love that work and the work sustains you, even when the job can be tough.

What are some of the accomplishments that you are most proud of in your time as Washoe County superintendent?

First of all, I will take credit for nothing. Leadership is a team sport and there are some of the most remarkable educators that I've ever worked with across the schools in our district. I do think though there are a few systemic improvements that we made that not only, I think, have put our central office on a path to being even better at serving and supporting our schools, but that hopefully have had a tangible impact on the day-to-day reality of our schools and our staff. 

Number one, we now provide day one benefits. When I arrived, employees had to wait 90 days for benefits. We knew we were having hiring shortages and I just thought we need to signal to people that when you come here, we value what matters most, which is the health of you and your family. So we made that change. 

Thanks to the Legislature, we were able to provide long overdue and well-deserved, historic pay increases to our staff, which was something that I was advocating for from the first day that I got here. It was clear to me that the dedicated education professionals across this district, and more broadly the state of Nevada, deserved far more than they were making. Now that job is not done. We still need to keep working on that, but I am proud that we did that. 

Was there anything that you found difficult about the job? What keeps you up at night?

We've had far too many student suicides. [Last year, the district provided mental health support following the suicides of seven students, and suicide was the leading preventable cause of death among Washoe County children in 2022.]

We know that the challenges our students face emotionally [and] the mental health issues that many of them are grappling with are very real. We continue to find ways to partner with our community and find more creative ways to provide support.

We know that our test scores don't reflect what our students truly know and are capable of doing. I'm excited that this year we're going to have growth data that will go alongside the Smarter Balanced Assessment data. I think it's important for our students, our teachers and staff and our families to see where our students start at the beginning of the year and where they end at the end of the year.

Last year, the district committed to raising teacher pay by about 20 percent and support staff pay by about 13 percent pending additional funding from a $250 million matching fund created by a 2023 bill. Are these raises already helping the district address vacancies among teachers and support staff? 

From 2022, when I started, to the start of the 2023-24 school year, we reduced our teacher vacancy rates by over 50 percent. 

I think it's too soon to tell what that impact has and obviously it's hard to prove a causal link, but I can tell you the testimonials that we heard from teachers and other staff meeting when our trustees approved those pay increases. It's clear that that is making a tangible difference in the lives of our staff. 

I think it will help us both retain people who were maybe stretched too thin working multiple jobs that they weren't sure they could stay working for the district. And I also hope and believe that it will attract people to come and work for the district.

Those raises were made possible by the historic investment in K-12 education by the Legislature last year. Do you think the governor and the Legislature are doing enough to support K-12 public education? 

I was very public when I first arrived that a starting teacher here in the Washoe County School District makes … just a little over $40,000 and Reno is not an inexpensive place to live. At the district that I came from outside Seattle in Washington state, a starting teacher made $20,000-$25,000 more than that when they joined the district. That's significant. 

I give credit to our trustees. They were very clear and very bold in naming compensation as a top priority for us during this legislative session and they and I both championed that very actively. 

But I've also been clear that it's a down payment. We're not done. We still have work to do. We’re not going to make up for decades of underfunding changes in one legislative session. 

A big theme in the 2023 legislative session was accountability in K-12 education, particularly given the historic infusion of funding that was approved for public schools. This call for accountability has continued months after the session ended with two prominent Democratic state lawmakers calling for the resignation or termination of Clark County schools Superintendent Jesus Jara. Do you think it’s appropriate for lawmakers to be making these statements?

No, I don't think that's appropriate. I think that accountability is very important. I think that we need to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and our job is to educate children as best we can and there do need to be appropriate accountability measures. That said, real meaningful systemwide improvement takes time, and I've been very clear about this. 

It won't happen in one biennium. When [Board] President [Beth] Smith and I testified before the Legislature back in February, I was very clear — when we come back in two years, we will have some good things to share with you. But we will be far from where we all want to be. 

What are you planning to do with your remaining time as superintendent? 

Priority one for me is to support Dr. McNeill in her transition … because I want her to be as successful as possible. 

What’s next for you?

I've been very focused on this transition, and so I don’t know what my next job is yet. I'm hoping that something will materialize. I’m not old enough yet to retire nor do I want to retire. I have, I think, a lot of career left ahead of me. 


Featured Videos

7455 Arroyo Crossing Pkwy Suite 220 Las Vegas, NV 89113
Privacy PolicyRSSContactNewslettersSupport our Work
The Nevada Independent is a project of: Nevada News Bureau, Inc. | Federal Tax ID 27-3192716