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Washoe school board extends superintendent job offer to longtime district leader

Joe Ernst has spent nearly 30 years climbing up the district ranks, first as a teacher, then as a principal, district official and soon, as superintendent.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education

Washoe County School Board has tapped a longtime district educator and leader as the district’s next superintendent. 

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to nominate Chief Continuous Improvement Officer Joe Ernst for its top role. He has been with the district since 1996, according to his resume. During his nearly 30-year tenure with the district, he worked his way up the ranks, starting as a teacher at Donner Springs Elementary School in Reno. 

Ernst’s hiring is pending contract negotiations. The district’s former superintendent, Susan Enfield, had an annual base salary of $358,000 before she left. The board is expected to vote on the contract during its May 28 meeting. If the contract is approved, Ernst would start his new role July 1. 

Ernst heads the district’s Office of Continuous Improvement, Research and School Improvement, which supports schools by providing data tools and reports that can be used to promote student achievement, equity and educational decision-making, according to the district’s website. 

“He is a proven, transformative principal,” said Board President Beth Smith. “He has committed approaches that balance both data and then also the heart of loving children.”

Following the vote, Ernst said he was looking forward to working with the board.

“The opportunities in front of us are endless … and I know that Washoe County School District will continue to do great things for our students,” he said. 

Ernst was one of the three internal candidates among the five finalists that rose to the top of the board’s superintendent search that began earlier this year after Enfield stepped down. 

She resigned less than two years after she was hired by the school board in May. Former Superintendent Kristen McNeill, who led the district prior to Enfield until her retirement in 2022, returned to lead the district in the interim. 

Ernst was the preferred candidate for Trustees Adam Mayberry, Colleen Westlake, Alex Woodley and Joe Rodriguez. Woodley highlighted Ernst’s volunteer work within the community. 

While Trustee Diane Nicolet didn’t have a preferred candidate, she said she was concerned about external candidates not being familiar with the state and instead leaned toward an internal candidate particularly with the 2025 legislative session approaching. 

Trustee Jeff Church said he was impressed by Texas-based Superintendent Elizabeth Fagan, who he thought could offer the district a fresh perspective. He said one concern from him was the district’s proficiency scores, which he said were on a decline even before the pandemic. 

Last school year, 22 percent of the district’s high school students were proficient in math and less than half of high school students were proficient in English Language Arts, according to data from the state. Church said he’s also worried about the district's chronic absenteeism and graduation rates, which are 31 percent and 84 percent, respectively. Church said those rates gave him pause on selecting an internal candidate, but he ultimately ended up voting for Ernst.

“I’m expecting results,” he said. “I know we can’t turn it around overnight, but I am trusting in him that he can do it in short order.”


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