Washoe County’s school chief talks

School board Superintendent Traci Davis.

School board Superintendent Traci Davis.

PHOTOs by eric marks

Traci Davis became superintendent of schools in the aftermath of a major controversy, which has often diverted public attention from things like schools and students, challenging her ability to keep the public’s eye on the ball. In this year, the school district faces a ballot measure to provide new revenue, a measure designed outside the district’s normal procedures by a community group. The interview was edited for space.

Where did you go to school?

I actually went to school in Las Vegas, and I went to Matt Kelly [Elementary School] in the kindergarten, Howard Wasden in elementary school, Dell H. for—Dell H. Robison for middle school, and Eldorado High School.

What didn’t you like about the school experience?

I liked school. I actually did, like if you look at my school career, like I loved school. I was like involved a hundred percent in high school, eventually ended up as student body president. Like, I loved school. … So if I had to think about an experience that was very negative, I prob—I mean, maybe one. But overall, I actually enjoyed school. I did. … It was just fun.

I actually was planning to follow up by asking how you relate the things you didn’t like to the job you’re doing as superintendent, but now I wonder—do you have trouble relating to kids who do have problems?

Oh, as a teacher? I don’t think so. I mean, I remember my first year of teaching in my first class. Like I have experience where I was hired late, and they created a class for me that—the teachers on the grade level put kids in the class to create, right, to make their classes smaller. And so sometimes when that happens, right, they didn’t necessarily balance the class, and I think my first year teaching, I probably had one of the most challenging classes that I could ever think of having. But I can also tell you that those 15 kids, I remember 11 of them graduating, right? And they were a challenging bunch. And they needed different things. They were very diverse, and as you continue to teach across the spectrum, I think I’ve had an opportunity to work in a variety of schools and regardless of if it’s a Title I school or if it’s dubbed an affluent school, kids have a variety of challenges, right? [Title I schools have high percentages of children from low-income families, making the schools eligible for federal funding to insure that all schools have the same resources to meet academic standards.] I mean, you work with kids where they are, not just because of their socioeconomic status or because they’re gifted or versus they’re special ed. Like, there’s something to give every kid.

At a school board meeting, President Angela Taylor (left) and Superintendent Traci Davis listen to Vice President John Mayer.

So I think I’ve probably looked at it in terms of, What do I give my kids?

Let’s talk about keeping up, not in the classroom but now that you’re an administrator. We live in a technical age when things can become obsolete in a year. Do you have trouble keeping up? Does the district have trouble keeping up with the technology?

You know, I think that the district is progressive. I don’t know any district that can keep up as fast as technology comes out. But we are proactive about when we purchase devices and how we use instructions so that when it’s device-specific, we’re not buying something outdated. We want it to be able to last for three to five years before it’s outdated. You and I both know how expensive technology can get, and you are absolutely right how fast things are changing and how we keep up. But I think we have a great department with our chief operating officer and IT officer, married to the instruction side of the house, right?—the 21st century learning—to make sure we are keeping up and also making sure that teacher needs are being addressed.

You know, I know there’s a lot of talk about one-to-one initiatives, and you know, like why isn’t our district having one-to-one initiatives? Done a lot of work with some other superintendents across the country on this one-to-one initiative, and the single most [common] thing that comes out of it is people always want to focus on one-to-one on the device and really it’s about 21st century learning skills. You can get the device, right, but we’re in situation where if we had enough schools built, and we didn’t have overcrowding, maybe that would be at the top of the list. But we have to rank our needs and say what’s the most important thing.

You know, in the next five to 10 years, and we’re building schools—do I see that there’s an opportunity for us to move toward some more one-to-one, and we do have some pilot project? Absolutely. But I think we have to rank order our needs and not necessarily compare us to a district where someone sends to me, Hey, Traci. Did you know this district, every kid has a laptop. Every kid has a computer. Well, there’s a lot of challenges when you think about that, because you have to assume that every kid [who] goes on can be connected. Right? And so I’m talking to a superintendent who is in a district where they bought a bus and they put wi-fi on the bus and the bus fits somewhere in the community. Right? Like, so you have to have to think about a lot of different things as you progress, but my thing is, what do we have control over? What do our teachers have control over? So that we can impart that on students, right, with 21st century learning as it’s related to technology.

How closely are you budgeted? When something unexpected happens, the flooding—was it O’Brien [Middle School]?

No, Pine [Middle School].

Pine. What does that do to you?

School board Superintendent Traci Davis, a student and mom.

I think initially you have to think, it’s like a house. You have homeowner’s insurance, right? We have insurance. So the first thing we look at is, What happened? and Is it something that we can bill insurance for? … And we know that some of this will be covered by insurance. And then we look at, you know, right now we had approximately $20 million a year in school repair and maintenance [fund] that we utilize. For Washoe, the unfortunate part of it is we have a lot more aging schools. The average age of our schools are 39 years of age, I believe. And so when you think of that and you bring it to the public, I always think of it in terms of owning a home, right? The water heater’s not going to last for 39 years, right? And so the district has done, I think, a good job of maintaining that, but as we grow, like anything else, right?—we need more roads, firemen, police officers, we need more schools—we need to create a sustainable funding source to take care of existing schools. Because if not, what happens is—and you can do this, go on data galleries—we put up what schools need what, and then we just have to go from our base down to most important thing, like what has to be taken care of, what can wait versus how much money we have. [The district posts these kind of figures at]. So it’s a budgeting process and we sit down with the team and the chief operating officer and we talk about … like, we know that we had some windows replaced at Hug and at Wooster couple years ago because that was important because things were happening in the building with heat and cooling. But maybe something else might have to wait based on a timeline, based on needs.

Sometimes it’s situational, if there’s an emergency, and sometimes it’s a well thought-out plan of, What do we replace based on how much money we have with the budget? And I think typically you do that with your home, right, when you look at something that happens in your home. I mean, I remember one day going home and the oven didn’t work. I’m like, What’s wrong with the oven? Need the oven to work. But I also need to paint the walls. So what do you think I’m going to pay first? … We got to eat. But it’s the same principle about what’s the most important and based on how much money we have.

With infrastructure, how much is in the pipeline that you need and how much more do you need in that pipeline?

As you know, we came out with a strategic blueprint, and we brought that out to the public and we looked at—I mean, there’s a variety of plans. When we think about our fundamentals, about what we believe, we looked at what were the most important things. And number one thing … was safety of kids. As we developed this plan, we talked about the safety of kids. And then we looked at academic outcomes, because that’s important, too. You know, we look at equity of assets. And then we look at the minimum amount of disruption for our families. And as we looked at these fundamentals, we said, OK, what kind of plan can we build? Well, no one wants to go double sessions. And double sessions, as you know, would be running two shifts of schools in one building. No one really likes year-round. But, based on the plan, we came up with a plan that said, this is how much money it would take to build schools and potentially keep us off double session and year-round; this amount of money would keep us off of double session, and we still might have to operate year-round.

And we presented that to the Schools Overcrowding and Repair Needs Committee, and that’s the committee created under Senate Bill 411, [Sen.] Debbie Smith, to have outside people in the community look at the needs of the district, which I think is amazing. Because then you get a balance of—it’s not the school district saying, We want-want-want what we need. It’s an outside group saying, OK, let us go in and look at what is it truly we need for our community and our district. And we put forth to build, to say if we want to create a sustainable source and be reasonable when you looked at the documentation that we had, looks like about $800 million. And that’s to build schools, to maintain schools, to keep up with a fast pace of this community growing and where those schools would be. When you look out in the south right now, we know that we have two elementary schools that, at this rate, they could potentially be—like, it’s not funny, but at this rate of growth—they could not only be year-round, they could be year-round/double session if we don’t get some relief. We know that our high schools are growing and we know where the bubble of kids are as we look to the future.

One of the great things I love about our chief operating office and his department and demographics is, we just don’t look for right now. And this concept came up about the district historically, right—chasing growth, right? We need to manage it. And one of the things that we can do to be successful, so that the person sitting in this seat 10 years from now—because God knows I’m young, but who knows where I’ll be in 10 years—hopefully they’re not trying to patchwork up schools, and there is a revenue that says, Hey, as a community we believe this. So that information was provided to the committee. [The committee recommended a sales tax increase from 7.7 percent to about 8.3 percent] … As a school district, we cannot advocate for or against the ballot question. You know that. But we can explain the needs and details over time and where we stand from decades prior to where we look like we will go decades in the future. And this is work that has been done with the EPIC committee [Economic Planning Impacts Committee] and within the community.

So it’s not just us pulling these numbers, saying this is what we think we need. It’s like a study done with our community leaders and saying, Yes, this looks like what the growth is. And when we look at the actual growth, and we see how the district has grown, you know, we see amazing growth. … Then you think of people bringing in these businesses—Tesla, Panasonic, and everything else that’s going out there. People bring families. And people value education. One of the things we heard loud and clear from our community was, you know, We want to have a stellar school district. And I don’t know who doesn’t want to have a stellar school district.

Tell me about 90 by 20 [a Davis plan for accomplishing a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020]. And why does it have to be ’20? Why not ’17? What happens between now and ’20?

You have to have high expectations, but expectations should be reasonable. So when we look at the work we’re doing or we look at the return on investment, it’s a do-able plan to chart off growth for graduation over time. Anybody that says, I’m going to get a 20 percent in graduation rate—I mean, I’d have to say you’re setting yourself up for failure. … But if you say, How can we get to a 90 percent rate over time? and incrementally we say three percent here, four percent here, and as we look at all kids, that’s a doable plan as we look at how we are revising the work we’re doing with special education, and we look at how we service gifted and talented, we look at the work we’re doing with ELL [English language learners] kids. To be fair, I think a good leader would say, Here’s the North Star—how do we get there? You’re not going to get to the North Star in a day. What would be do-able? So 2020 looked like a do-able plan over time to increase. If you looked at how the district has maintained its increases—and there’s a little push along the way so it’s not—I mean, I think 2020 is a little aggressive, but I don’t know anybody who rises to a low expectation. And when people push back at me about, Don’t you think 90 by 20 is a high expectation? then I return the question—Do you have low expectations of kids? Do you have low expectations of teachers? So you have low expectations of a superintendent? I’d rather a superintendent saying, This is our North Star to get the 90 percent and hit 88 than not have a high expectation for every boy and girl. But I believe the community does have high expectations, and I think it’s a reasonable plan and a well thought-out plan.

I think what I was trying to get at is over the next four years at a classroom level, what in practical terms is going to change? What do you need to have happen there?

To get to the graduation rate? I think there’s a lot of things. I think when you look at the work we’re doing—so, there’s academic gaps, but then we talk about the needs of students, and we talk about social/emotional learning and these other types of gaps as we continue to move this work forward. As you know, we received $13 million from Stacie Mathewson [Foundation, $1 million a year for 13 years to aid programs to close gaps that may undercut student success]. We’re talking about kids who struggle with mental illness, kids who struggle with substance abuse. We still educate those kids,- but if we never attack some of these gaps we don’t get long term improvement here. So if we look at the work we’re doing around social/emotional learning, we believe that we have started to receive some increase in academics as it relates to us helping kids solve these problems. When you look at the work we’re doing nationally around parent teacher home visits, one of our big pushes is get into families. How do we help you help your kids? Parent university nights, like informing parents—having parents have strategies. Looking at the rigor in our curriculum. Making sure it’s relevant. And providing opportunities for a variety of kids so that they are engaged. I think those are the pieces that help us get to this 90 percent. It’s not just Can you pass a test? Are we helping kids deal with all these other skills that are related to social/emotional learning. And that’s the work that we’re doing—and engaging families so that we get to this pathway.