Trust Restored

A Nevada board and superintendent work to repair their governance relationship

Michelle Healy​

It’s no surprise that board-superintendent relationships can sometimes get out of synch. In the worst situations, these relationships can turn downright dysfunctional, scarred by distrust, power struggles, miscommunications, and more. In either case, the biggest losers in such situations are the students for whom school leaders are charged with supporting and ensuring academic success.

Recovery from a damaged board-superintendent relationship is possible, and a stronger, healthier connection can be put in place, say members of the governance team for Nevada’s Washoe County Public Schools. Getting there requires transparent interactions, open and honest communications, and a willingness to acknowledge past errors and a commitment to correct them.

Those are some of the lessons district leadership put in place following a period of “turmoil,” intense media scrutiny, and political pressures after Pedro Martinez, the district’s previous superintendent, was fired in July 2014, says current Superintendent Traci Davis.

“Turmoil might be too mild a term to use” to describe the situation, says Davis. An assistant superintendent at the time, she was tapped to serve as interim superintendent. In 2015, she was hired to lead the 64,000-student district that includes the cities of Reno and Sparks.

An investigation by the Nevada State Attorney General’s office ruled that the board of trustees violated the state’s open meetings law when it ousted Martinez. The district had to pay more than half a million dollars to settle a wrongful termination suit that followed. Equally costly, Davis says, was the public’s anger and confusion about the cost debacle.

BROKEN TRUST

From community factions pressing for the ouster of certain board members, to the unrelenting media scrutiny, to political pressures weighing on the district, outside factors “really impacted the board significantly, and the superintendent, and all their relationships, says Angie Taylor, a trustee appointed in December 2014, after the firing ordeal. Selected to fill the seat of a member who stepped down for health reasons, she won her seat in the 2016 election.

“Trust had broken down. The community’s trust, if they had it at all, had broken down. Even among some of the trustees themselves, trust was broken,” says Taylor. “We can’t get things done that way. When we can’t function, it will impact the kids.”

The media coverage was intense, recalls Davis. “Every day it seemed we were on the front page, on blast.”

Add in a growing financial deficit and multiple departures from the seven-member board (including one resulting from allegations of misconduct involving a high school student, according to the Associated Press), and the district “had a lot going on,” Davis says.

GOVERNANCE TRAINING

When trustee Malena Raymond ran for the board in 2016, things had settled a bit, but trust in the board was still an issue, she says. “During my campaign, I heard lots of rumors, lots of constituent complaints about the superintendent, about the central office, all these issues that people thought were problematic,” she recalls. “I made a choice beforehand, and a concerted effort while campaigning, not to be swayed by that.”

It was a choice in line with the new board governance training that the district had implemented. Led by consultant Tom Alsbury, the training focused on how to work together as a board and on the importance of that relationship in partnership with the superintendent. Raymond says, “That really reinforced some of my gut feelings about wanting to get in there and see how things work” before attempting major changes.

“Especially as a new trustee, you’ve just spent all this time canvassing and talking at forums, and you hear all these little nitpicky issues, to put it mildly, from a range of people,” she continues. “When you come in, you have the urge sometimes to just lay all that out and say, ‘This is all the stuff we need to fix.’”

Another aspect of the training that has resonated for Raymond is the importance of “thinking globally for the district,” she says. “There are certainly times when you have to look at issues more on a site-by-site basis, but for the most part, I want to make sure that the decisions I’m making are right for the entire district.”

Ongoing training with Alsbury, with the Nevada State School Boards Association, and nationally with the National School Boards Association, have provided “lots of great learning opportunities,” she says.

MARKETING, MEDIA

In addition to governance training, the district also instituted a plan to address its media image. Meetings were arranged with the region’s largest newspaper to express concerns that its coverage seemed “very slanted” and that “not all of the truth was coming out,” Davis says.

For example, she points to the district’s steadily increasing graduation rate (up from 73 percent to
84 percent) during her tenure, higher rates of attendance, lower rates of suspensions, and increasing math and reading scores on the Smarter Balance Assessment.

There’s also been progress in closing achievement gaps in several areas, Davis says, including an increase in graduation rates for English learners and for special education students.

To push more positive information out and “help turn the story around,” the district adopted a marketing strategy. It included finding “champions” in the community to tell the story about the work of the district, whether on social media or in public forums.

Marketing also included increasing conversations between the public and the trustees via town hall meetings and forums and building stronger relationships with state legislators.

Some legislators were at one point very publicly “anti-district, so we’ve had to do a lot of work to win people over,” with the goal of helping district students, Davis says.

INTERNAL ISSUES

In the nearly four years since she was named superintendent, Davis and the board have had to address their own internal challenges.

Building a stronger relationship, marked by open, prompt, and forthright communication, has been a top priority for Washoe’s leadership team, says Raymond. “The superintendent set the stage for this off the bat,” by her accessibility, willingness to answer questions, make information available, and recognition that this is a partnership.

One of the lessons she learned following the district’s earlier challenges, Davis says, was that those trustees did not have equal access to information or to the superintendent. “They all felt that certain people got better answers, got what they wanted. I listened to that and felt we had to build a system so that there was accountability for equity for all trustees.”

A board services team was assembled to assist all trustees, from arranging town hall events, to gathering data about schools, to alerting them to training opportunities, to keeping them “as informed as I can, as fast as I can” about district news and issues, she says.

“That’s important for superintendents. You need to make sure your bosses know things before they hit the news. And even though they may not have a (decision-making) role because it may be a personnel issue or something out of the scope of what they do, they still should have an idea so there are no surprises.

“Part of this is making sure we give board members good customer service,” Davis says, acknowledging that that lens was not always as focused as it should have been.

Access to information and open and equitable communications help reduce issues of board over-reach, which is essential to becoming a better board, Taylor says.

The district also has made important strides in involving the community in conversations about the budgeting process, a crucial step in restoring public trust, Raymond says.

“I think we lost some of that trust because they weren’t involved enough to understand how we got to a place where there’s a [$7 million] deficit,” she says.

TRUST REBUILDING

Along with information forums hosted by trustees and staff members to engage the public in the budgeting process, the district also offers an online survey that allows students, families, and other community members to help build the district budget.

Using public feedback from last year’s surveys, the district says it was able to retain music and art programs, reduce central administration, and cut some transportation services.

With its focus on restoring trust, Washoe’s district leadership says it also recognizes the value of a little fun, whether it’s during a break at a conference or at a board meeting. Like the team’s recent holiday cookie exchange, social opportunities allow everyone to get to know one another a little better and to build healthy, nonjudgmental working relationships—trustee-to-trustee, and superintendent-to-trustee, Davis says.

But contrary to what some people in the district assume must be true of African-American women who work together, she and Taylor are not “in lockstep” on every education issue Davis says. (Davis is the district’s first black superintendent and only its second woman; Taylor, the 2017 Board President, was the district’s first black board member.)

That assumption, would never have been made about two white male school leaders, she notes, and is just one example of the continuing challenges faced by black superintendents.

Following a lengthy negotiation process, the Washoe Board of Trustees voted 5-2 and approved the renewal of Davis’ employment contract in June 2018. In consideration of the district’s ongoing financial struggles, she voluntarily agreed to a reduction in some compensation and bonus payments.

“In the middle of all of this, we passed a $781 million bond issue” to fund school infrastructure projects, Taylor says. “We hadn’t passed a bond issue with the previous two superintendents, who both attempted bonds.” This success, she says, was a sign of community support for the school system.


Michelle Healy (mhealy@nsba.org) is associate editor of American School Board Journal.​

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