Board of bunglers

Over the 14 days of the Traci Davis/school board melodrama, the Washoe County School Board failed completely to make a credible case to the public for what it was doing.

Instead, this is what the public saw: Davis went on leave, the school board began plotting a coup d’etat, supposed grounds for Davis’s removal were rumored but not proven, and she was fired. It appeared clear that board members treated the notion of open meetings casually since they went into the final meeting confident they had the votes, suggesting there had been consensus-building out of public view. Along the way, the board taught a lesson to the students under its care by lying. Then, too, there was the juvenile stunt of closing down the school district building and hiding out from Davis (although we aren’t sure such a thing shouldn’t be tried at the White House).

If the board had documentation of Davis leaking, it would have produced the specific pieces of paper and explained their significance, not left them in a huge bundle for the public to search through. If it had testimony proving the leak, it would have heard from those witnesses at the school board meeting where Davis’s lawyers could have cross examined. Neither happened. The fact that the school board hired PR flacks to sell its case instead of dealing with the public honestly and candidly is evidence of how weak the board’s case was. Since the 1950s, there has been a saying: A public relations problem means there’s a real problem that should not be papered over.

School superintendents make enemies, but Traci Davis was not another Pedro Martinez. He invited his fate. She did not. Martinez, upon being asked to answer questions about his credentials, threw a fit and walked out of the building to announce inaccurately to the world that he had been fired. Davis did not deserve the ambush she got. If the board wanted to replace her, it should have negotiated a settlement of her departure, giving her a dignified way out and keeping the board looking competent. Instead it tried to dirty her up and looked like a board of bunglers.

We have two comments on individuals. When Katy Simon Holland was elected to the board we were pleased, figuring she would bring a world of experience and a head full of knowledge. In retrospect, her election was probably a mistake. She had been a public administrator accustomed to operating as an executive, always strategizing and calculating, expecting others to follow her lead, which does not work on a board of equals, and she did not adjust.

And if the board needed public relations advice, it had in its existing structure a figure who spent years covering public officials as a reporter, constantly encountering the foibles of officeholders and the pitfalls of communicating with the public. School district public information officer Victoria Campbell could have told the board how to approach this delicate task. But it seems never to have sought her advice.

School boards have special problems. Except in the largest cities, they are part-time panels made up of everyday people who give of their time, yet they have frequently been lampooned. The only thing the Washoe County School Board has done is deepen the difficulties boards face.