You have to hand it to the Washoe County School District. When they commit to the circus, they’re committed. Shutting down three administration buildings for two days because the soon-to-be-former boss might roll in and make a cameo? Said soon-to-be-former boss threatening to make such a cameo in the first place, and then comparing herself to five people racistly and wrongly convicted of rape? A review of the emails between the lawyers involved brings to mind over-the-top trash talk between B-list comic book supervillains. No current or former senior member of the Washoe County School District, elected, appointed, or hired, is coming out of this with his or her reputation intact.
Pass the popcorn and hit play on the calliope music, because it’s going to get crazier. The special meeting of the school board to fire Superintendent Traci Davis will be held on Monday, July 1st. One of two things will happen – either they will fire her for cause, or a settlement deal will be announced with some sort of severance package with a “non-disparagement” clause that will effectively prevent any public airing of the rot within WCSD that led to this mess in the first place.
If they do fire her, she will sue the district and force them to prove, pursuant to her contract, that their “cause” was legally “good.” I pray this is the route this case takes, because however expensive or embarrassing that process will ultimately be for the district (and the taxpayers of Washoe County), it will force everything into the sunlight, which is the greatest disinfectant of diseased government entities. And boy, is there need of disinfectant.
Beyond that, there is a need to rethink our public education institutions so that we avoid this sort of thing in the future. Here are a few proposals.
Break up the school district
The advantage of having one huge organization instead of multiple smaller ones is that you theoretically save money on administrative costs because you don’t have multiple, redundant leadership teams. The problem is that there is a limit to how many subordinates any one leader (or leadership team) can effectively supervise and manage, which means more sub-levels of management between publicly accountable decision-makers and classrooms. Enormous bureaucracies are slow to recognize or respond to budding problems at the deckplate level.
The unified school district model is not working for our large and multi-faceted community. Break it up. You could do it randomly so that each district within the county has a roughly equal mix of racial, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds, or you could deliberately try to create districts with different need focuses, like areas where more students are new to the English language. (I would prefer the former – melting pots are healthier than “benevolent” segregation.)
However you do it, though, smaller government entities are more responsive to the citizenry as a whole and their “customers” in particular. And clearly, our education bureaucrats are not currently meeting that responsiveness need.
The other reason is that it gives teachers a louder voice with their employment choices. I can’t tell you how many emails I got from teachers after last week’s column, essentially saying, “you don’t know the half of it – it’s worse than you think.” They are frustrated and wish they could quit – but they love teaching and, frankly, don’t have a ton of other options in their chosen profession without moving to a new city. These letters called to my mind nothing more than Hogwarts while Delores Umbridge was the headmistress.
The morale of any organization’s line-level workers is a critical indicator of the success of the organization, and that morale is usually best measured by retention. When an industry has a monopoly, though, and its employees are specialists who can’t easily transition to a competitor, it becomes very easy to take those employees for granted. Couple that with the golden handcuffs that is a defined benefit retirement program like PERS, and teachers end up having to eat whatever crap administrators shovel to them. They deserve better.
Imagine if local teachers were being wooed by three or four regional school districts. The incentives for individual teachers to be marketable would be huge, and incentives for local principles and administration staff to find retention motivators beyond pay, like empowering individuals to develop unique lesson plans and lessening bureaucratic red tape, would be even huger.
(Speaking of monopolies, where have the teacher’s unions been in all of this? This is what happens when what supposedly are non-partisan employee protection organizations become nothing more than ATMs for a single political party. Democrats take teachers for granted, Republicans ignore them, bad conduct by management with the “correct” ideology are ignored and the membership of the unions is left to suffer. Shame on teachers unions, who were probably in the best possible positions to identify and help correct these problems years ago and are conspicuously absent from the present imbroglio now.)
Elect superintendents, not part-time school board members
The purpose of a part-time, citizen school board is that the people have direct, democratically accountable oversight via elected representatives who have authority over the mechanics of our children’s educations.
That isn’t what we have, though. Because of the size of the district and the contracts making it so difficult to fire superintendents, the Board of Trustees has little power over day-to-day operations of the district, limited knowledge as to small problems likely to get bigger, and few good options when top-level problems come to a head. Regardless of their individual talents or desire to engage, they are a reactive group of outsiders, and even significant turnover of that board over the last few years has led to little improvement. It’s better than the group that botched the Pedro Martinez firing so badly a few years back, but they are still struggling.
Why not simply elect the superintendent directly? That way, the buck stops with a single individual who is him- or herself directly accountable to voters at regular intervals, but with enough time in between elections to let long-term policy changes bear their fruit. It would be even better with smaller districts, where each school district can elect their own community member to oversee that community’s schools on a full-time, active basis.
Embrace and encourage more education options
With every new revelation of the deep dysfunction of the WCSD, I say a little prayer of gratitude that my kids are outside of that system. Instead, they attend a public school that is run by adults, empowers teachers, handles personnel issues when they inevitably arise with professionalism and swiftness and is producing awesome education outcomes for the kids. What a shame that more public-school-dissatisfied families don’t have escape hatches from non-functioning school districts because certain politicians are beholden to monopolistic union bosses.
The benefit of limited, decentralized government in any context is that when people such as Traci Davis inevitably worm their way into our public lives and start chewing holes in our public institutions, there are firestops that contain their damage. The bigger and more centralized public (or private) monopolies get, whether it be in health care, utilities, or retirement services, the more damage a single bad actor left in charge of those institutions can do.
If government officials are running good schools, they don’t need to fear parents opting out. And even well run education institutions are not the right option for everyone. Embracing and allowing more diversity in education options benefits everyone, traditional public schools included, in much the same way and for the same reasons that splitting up the school district itself would – more options for teachers, more accountability for administrators, and more incentive for each to be the best they can be.
It is disgusting when you start lifting layers off of something not working properly, and finding smelly and foul rot, disease and corruption underneath. But there is no other way of identifying the problems or cleaning things up. You cannot clean house in the dark.
The WCSD circus is an opportunity for our community to tear out our rotting public education foundations and rebuild something healthier, stronger, and more effective for our kids. It will be a hard job, but one well worth undertaking.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.