Traci Davis, Washoe County’s embattled superintendent, went on indefinite leave earlier this week for “personal reasons.” Two other top administrators, Chief Student Services Officer Byron Green and Chief of Staff David Lasic, colleagues of Davis’ from her Clark County days, were gone the same day, scrubbed from the district’s website as if they never existed. And now, bravely announced after close-of-business on Friday, we’ve learned that the board added a meeting on July 1st agendized to discuss Davis’ “character, alleged misconduct and professional competence.”
This is almost certainly a prelude to a formal firing, while the school board tries to sort out the legalities of it all. This is a good thing – her only “accomplishment” has been a slight increase in graduation rates that was achieved as much through doctoring numbers than actually improving the education of struggling students. By any other measure, her tenure has been a series of expensive failures.
But whenever Davis’ leave goes from “indefinite” to “permanent,” the Washoe County School District still has 64,000 students to educate. A new superintendent will of course be chosen, and the district’s leadership – elected and appointed – will have huge trust deficits to overcome with their employees, parents, and taxpayers at large. How the board, in particular, acts and communicates now will determine their success for years to come – and they’re already screwing it up.
Transparency is important. Honesty is even more important. School Board President Katie Simon Holland told various media outlets on Tuesday that she “became aware” that Davis had “requested” an indefinite leave of absence for “personal reasons.” This is obviously an obfuscation.
Top level administrators don’t suddenly and mysteriously go on indefinite leaves, and if they do, the school board membership should be approving it in advance, not finding out about it after the fact. Everybody understands that this is BS on its face. So why peddle it anyway?
The fact that Holland was being less than truthful became painfully obvious when, on Friday, she admitted that she didn’t tell the full truth so as not to “harm the district,” but those lies did more to harm the district than being forthcoming ever could have done. I mean, who did she think she was fooling?
I get that no one wants to get sued because they say something publicly that later turns out not to be true, and the school board in particular is no doubt still gun shy after that body was found to have violated the Open Meeting Law in their ousting of the previous superintendent. But this passive voice nonsense serves to undermine the public trust in a major way. The culture of secrecy at WCSD must end for things to improve.
If you can’t talk about something, just say so: “Ms. Davis is on indefinite leave. We can’t discuss details at this time, but will keep the public updated to the extent we legally can as soon as possible.”
Even if Davis had suddenly requested a personal leave for something completely not work-related, say that. The way the board went about this only fueled the rumor mill, doing harm to the public’s trust and to whatever remains of Davis and the other two administrators who plainly have been fired.
The full truth will come out sooner or later, or at least something will. Joe Hart of KRNV has already reported that a source informed him that the district’s IT folks were ordered to deny Davis, Green, and Lasic access to their emails, and KRNV found what they believed to be Davis’ local apartment with a U-Haul out front. In the absence of information about a topic this significant to the community, people will start filling in their own gaps, and rumor and speculation will become “truth” where nothing else is available.
Not being up front with taxpayers now means they won’t believe you later about anything. Like when you say, “We really need more taxes to build new schools, and we totally won’t jack up the prices on you after you approve it.” Or “We’ve found a great new candidate for superintendent, and he/she’s totally worth half a million bucks a year.”
The parents and taxpayers of Washoe County have a right to know whether public school leadership is doing something harmful to our kids or our tax dollars. Sweeping malfeasance under the rug doesn’t insulate you from embarrassment or liability, and if it does, it only invites more malfeasance.
Tell us the truth. American citizens can handle it. And integrity pays off in the long term.
Rethink the hiring process. Once Davis is officially gone, there will no doubt be a nationwide hunt for The Most Qualified Person Ever. Don’t do it.
Hiring from outside of an organization tells the people already in the organization that hard work and loyalty don’t pay, and that there is a ceiling to their promotions. Outsiders have a much longer learning curve, just to identify problems before they can even begin to be solved. The only advantage comes when and if an organization is so fundamentally rotten top to bottom that you need the Outsider to come in, crack some skulls, and rebuild the organization from the ground up.
WCSD is pretty rotten, I think, and I would not want anyone who was in Davis’ inner circle replacing her. A fresh perspective is important.
But there are without a doubt many talented principals within the district who know the schools and the community already and no doubt have ideas on what needs to change immediately. Even better, such a candidate would be closer to the teachers who no doubt would prefer being led by someone who knows what they experience in the trenches. I would also look for people who have recently left WCSD administrative posts to take positions elsewhere, such as charter or private schools. They probably left for a reason, and now have the valuable perspective of looking from the outside in.
The last two superintendents were enticed to move to Washoe County with absurdly lavish salaries and perks, which means we’ve been hiring mercenaries instead of community members. Both of them flamed out in spectacular fashion, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of unnecessary dollars.
There are without a doubt plenty of qualified people whose roots are here, people who are already invested in their home county and would welcome the chance to improve it without insisting on becoming millionaires on public servant salaries.
And when that person is hired, the contract should not be for a set period of time. I think all public employees should be at-will, but certainly we can all agree that high level (and highly paid) public employees of this sort should always serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority, subject to removal at any time and for any reason. If you have sufficient talent and expertise to successfully run an organization as large as WCSD, and the board “unfairly” fires you, getting a new job shouldn’t be difficult. If voting for WCSD members has any purpose at all (and these days, I’m not convinced that it does), it’s so that the citizens have some measure of control over what happens with our public schools. Making the superintendent functionally un-fireable (or fireable only with an absurdly expensive golden parachute) makes a mockery of the entire concept of public accountability.
Watch for red flags and listen to the critics. Not everyone who tells you what you want to hear is your friend, and not everyone who tells you what you don’t want to hear is your enemy.
Davis, and the WCSD under her “leadership,” have been targets of critique from various commentators, including Yours Truly, of course, with tremendous frequency over the years. The comment thread on any news story about Davis and/or the district is almost universal in its collective disdain.
I neither expect nor desire public officials to quaver before every internet troll, and editorialists aren’t always correct in their analysis (except for me – I’m totally never wrong). But when the criticism is so substantial and widespread, it needs to be heard. Circling the wagons against public critics is practically an admission that those critics are correct, and does nothing to improve the situation. Even successful organizations have room to improve, and the best leaders seek out those who will challenge them and who are unafraid to speak up when something seems to be wrong.
Whatever Davis and her two administrators did to be suddenly ousted from their positions, their conduct did not occur in a vacuum, nor is it likely that plenty of people weren’t in a position to see it coming. The teachers knew what was happening, and no one would listen to them. No wonder their morale was in the toilet.
The problems with public education cannot be solved by money. Teacher pay increases are nice (they deserve it), but what will make our educators professionally satisfied and our educational outcomes great is better leadership.
The Washoe County School Board now has the chance to clean the slate and do things right. Here’s to hoping they take these lessons to heart.
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.