Schools of hard knocks

Photo By DENNIS MYERS Washoe schools superintendent Heath Morrison worked with casino executive Michonne Ascuaga at a Sparks High School ceremony.

Instability has long been one of Nevada’s enemies. People come, people go. The pride of place that generates support for the state is lacking where only one in five residents is a native.

Then there is the instability within its force of public administrators. Agency directors come and go, too, depriving the agencies they lead of institutional memory and a sense of what, in Nevada’s culture, works and doesn’t work.

The past week has been a wash. The Nevada Board of Regents decided to keep acting University of Nevada, Reno president Marc Johnson on permanently, while Washoe County schools superintendent Heath Morrison decided to leave the state.

Teachers, and particularly counselors, are fond of the quote from Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” The verse plays a role in the memorable teacher’s novel Up the Down Staircase.

Nevada is in no danger of reaching beyond its grasp. The state’s economic development plan envisions 50,000 new jobs—about a third of the number it has lost during its long recession. State government’s ability to get even those 50,000 jobs is uncertain. Even education is an essential component in luring new business to the state, and between government cuts and inflation, the state’s commitment to education has been in decline for half a decade. In 2009, higher education funding in the state after more than two years of recession was $683 million. Today, it’s $473 million. At the elementary and secondary levels, Morrison told the RN&R last year that Nevada is far below the norm:

“At this point … the per-pupil in the proposed budget goes to about half the national average. The national average is about [$]10,000 per pupil, and the proposed budget is about $4,900. So a lot of extras that many other states have in terms of electives, and really engaging programs that really get kids excited about staying in school, we’ve never had or we’ve already cut. And so you reach into it until you can’t cut any. And you can’t cut math, you can’t cut science, so what you do is you end up having to add students in those classes, so instead of having 31, 32 kids in the class, you have 36 or 37.”

The per-pupil money has risen a bit since then, but the national average is still in no danger from Nevada.

Lower higher education

The White House this week said Nevada has 26,815 people using the Federal Guaranteed Student Loan program. It was part of President Obama’s sales pitch for getting Congress to act to prevent higher interest on FGSL loans. He said the interest rates “are slated to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. To out-educate our global competitors and make college more affordable … And for each year that Congress doesn’t act, students rack up an additional $1,000 in debt over the life of their loans.”

But while the president was doing that, the Associated Press—in an analysis of government numbers—was arguing that the value of a college education is doubtful, at least in the Intermountain West, which the AP said “was most likely to have young college graduates jobless or underemployed—roughly 3 in 5.”

“You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it’s not true for everybody,” economist Richard Freeman told the AP. It was a message educators in Nevada did not need at this particular moment.

Another unwelcome message came at a meeting of the Nevada Board of Economic Development, where a marketing company told state officials that Nevada has an inferiority complex that can be cured by touting the state more.

Lorna Shepard of Noble Studios told the board members that Nevada’s assets are obscured by a focus on its problems, a notion that surprised some leaders who have tried to get policymakers to focus on state problems.

Shepard said, “There’s a belief there’s not a great education system.” Rather, she said, there’s a “perception problem” that can be cured by boasting more about the state’s schools.

Educators countered that it’s not a perception problem, it’s a real problem. “It is not a great education system,” said consultant and columnist Eugene Paslov, former Nevada superintendent of schools. “We’re in the bottom quartile in almost every measure, and we haven’t moved much in the past decade or two.”

Some of the officials in front of Shepard immediately responded with plenty of touting, bragging about how great Nevada is and challenging the whole notion that the state has an inferiority complex.

Touting is a marketing technique, not an actual governing action, and in any event it’s never been something that is lacking in the state. Nevada leaders are loaded with swagger. “[O]ur economy is robust, our workforce is teeming, our job growth is healthy and the unemployment rate is low,” said Gov. Jim Gibbons during the first year of the recession as he called for halving state higher education funding, reducing the state’s ability to compete for new business.

Welcome to Nevada

Morrison’s departure will remove one local target from the poisonous public dialogue that today’s politics generates. While Morrison was generally admired, he did have his critics, with some arguing that the higher graduation rate he posted—70 percent—was actually a product of a change in the system for calculating the rate. Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano wrote Sunday that even Morrison’s reach was not exceeding his grasp. “Morrison’s goal for year three [of the school district strategic plan] is 1 percent. Uno. A single point. A 71 percent graduation rate. So says NevadaReportCard.com, the Nevada Department of Education website. … By his own admission, his purported progress will prove unsustainable.”

But other criticisms were less reasoned, to the point that this newspaper removed some vitriolic reader comments about Morrison because they could have been legally actionable. Even comments that fell short of that point were harsh.

Bonnie Wilson: “HOW CAN THIS BE that Washoe County Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison received in 2010 some $280,000 of TAX dollars for this job?!?!?!?! … FIVE teachers we need desperately IN the classroom have NO job because Washoe County Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison stole and continues to steal THEIR paychecks.”

Matt Ong: “Greed, which these sacrilegious pay raises are, decreasing your staff’s salaries, and the profane obesity of so many of our elected public officials and appointed public employees, are the mortal sin of taking more than your fair share because they break God’s Law.”

Wilson and Ong as least signed their messages. From behind the safety of a pseudonym, “iJoe” bewailed—without any evidence—“crimes involving moral turpitude here by Washoe County Superintendent Heath Morrison.”

That should make it easier to attract applicants to replace Morrison.

“The next Washoe County school superintendent will be tarred, feathered and crucified,” Barbano wrote.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.