This past July, a lot of moving and shaking happened within the Washoe County School District (WCSD) after the Board of Trustees voted to terminate superintendent Traci Davis’ employment. Since then, the board has been busy searching for a replacement as well as taken steps to improve the stability and morale between the parents, teachers, community and upper management.
Therefore, interim superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill – who has decades of experience with WCSD as a principal, teacher, and in various managerial positions – started Community Conversations where she invited the public to workshops held throughout September and October to address some of these concerns.
At the September 5 meeting held at the Sparks Library, McNeill shared her Pathway to Positive Progress plan to about 20 attendees, answered questions, and shared information about how the district is moving forward considering the tumultuous summer.
“In this last couple of months, a lot of changes have happened in the district and so we wanted to bring these meetings to the community,” McNeill says. Upon being named interim superintendent after Davis’s departure, McNeill says that she immediately reached out to the employees to figure out how to improve communication, trust, and respect between staff and upper management.
“They filled out a survey and each response came directly to me,” McNeill says. She shared issues such as the amount of workload teachers are faced with and about how the district added a fifth area superintendent to oversee special education and provide direct support for those schools.
“Ever since I took my role, I asked everyone every day that they act with honesty, integrity, and kindness. Those are the District’s core values. I want to try to clear the proverbial platter with teachers and principals and focus on the number one goal of educating our students,” she adds.
A few of McNeill’s other goals as interim superintendent include: urging the district to look closely at employee benefits; working with information technology and equity within the schools (“the fantastic thing about this is what we opened up three new schools that are 1-to-1,” McNeill says); and better relaying information about the allocation and enrollment process.
“For example, right now the Nick Poulakidas school is way overenrolled with kindergarteners,” McNeill says. After going over the main points of the Pathway to Positive Progress, she then opened it up for questions.
One of the first questions was why the district was spending so much money on a nationwide search/recruitment process for a permanent superintendent when Dr. McNeill appeared to be well qualified.
“There’s a lot of confidence-building that we have to do in this region and it’s important for staff, the community, and the candidate that we hire the most qualified person,” says WCSD Board President Katy Simon Holland. As the 59th largest district in the United States and managing a billion-dollar enterprise, Holland adds that being involved with the school district is 10 times harder than being with the Washoe County Commissioners.
“It takes a special kind of will (to have the superintendent job),” Simon Holland adds, also noting that the data from community surveys shows that it’s a 50/50 split between the people who think the district should simply save the money and hire McNeill and those who prefer undergoing a national search process.
However, McNeill has her own thoughts on possibly being considered for the role of permanent superintendent: “It’s a huge job, it’s a tremendous amount of responsibility, and I have a family- I need to make sure it’s in the best interest for them, too.”
People also raised questions about where the money was going from the marijuana taxes (Nevada Senator Julia Ratti stood up and quickly explained that they money eventually ended up in the state’s rainy day fund after parts were dispersed to local governments and before the education fund was eliminated) and one parent shared how she felt that her kids were pressured to go to school even when they were deathly ill due to the stringent attendance policy.
“There’s this idea that ‘if you don’t have a doctor’s note then you have to go to school’ even though my kid has the flu and I can’t take her to the doctor,” the parent said. McNeill did acknowledge that chronic absenteeism is a nationwide problem and that the school district in Southern Nevada is taking a more aggressive approach to absenteeism, but if kids are ill in Northern Nevada then they absolutely need to stay home.
“The base of the matter is that you can’t learn if you’re not in school,” Dr. McNeill says.
One person brought that there seems to be a shortage of teachers (WCSD has 43 teacher vacancies, which is a small amount compared to the 750 vacancies in the school district in Southern Nevada)and a district staff person went over its recruitment process and how the district finds qualified candidates. They also shared that the starting salary for a teacher is around $47,000 per year.
Other topics that were mentioned included school safety, the sweltering temperature of some of the older gyms, and questions about the curriculum and the amount of time students spend on devices.
“Employers have asked that we implement technology into our school system. A part of that (the 1-to-1 device initiative) is making sure that students are ready to go out into the world prepared. Whether we like it or not, technology is here,” McNeill says.