Early childhood programs, homeless children, suicide prevention and a few other items are among the things that are particularly important to the new interim superintendent of schools in Washoe County. But as close as they are to her heart, she is putting them on the back burner.
What comes first? Getting the schools open on time, which is August 12, just 42 days after her appointment.
There probably is no good time to suddenly and unexpectedly lose a schools superintendent. But if it has to happen, July is not a bad time. Still, all eyes will be on Interim Superintendent Kristen McNeill. If it goes badly, any possible bid by her for the permanent position will be hurt, and the image of the school board that fired her predecessor will be further injured.
The firing of Traci Davis was accompanied by information being closely held, with the result that the public did not really know whatever information the Washoe County School Board acted on. The news site This is Reno reported:
“But multiple requests for information to the district went unanswered last week. Despite a document dump—including dozens of text messages by two former administrators—of what the school district’s attorney called incontrovertible evidence showing wrongdoing by Davis, a public records order for [school board president Katy Simon] Holland’s emails and texts was met today with an estimate of $1,500.”
In the Sparks Tribune, columnist Andrew Barbano wrote, “The district has a large communications staff employing about 30 people and they are quite capable. So why was a political juice firm hired? I’m still waiting for the costs of shutting down the district’s administration building. Employees were given two days off with pay because it was rumored that Ms. Davis might (gasp!) show up for work before her dismissal inquisition. God save us from short black ladies.”
The reluctance to explain the board’s actions in clear language accompanied by directly applicable documents may have run afoul of state law, which says that everything on which a public body bases its decisions is supposed to be available to the public.
Possibly to convey an image of openness and transparency, McNeill has been sitting down for one-on-one interviews with reporters. This also avoids a news conference in which she might be put in a crossfire of questions.
“We’ve got three new schools opening up—Sky Ranch, Desert Skies and Nick Poulakidas—and we want to make sure that the rest of our schools are open on time, so the priority is making sure that the wheels are on and that our staff feels supported when the doors are opened,” she said.
What are the district’s strengths and weaknesses?
“Every day we’ve got counselors that are helping our kids through trauma. We have teachers that are working side by side with our students. We have principals that have an enormous responsibility on their plate. We’ve got site facility coordinators that make our buildings look beautiful.
“But we also know that we have some areas of improvement and every organization needs to be honest about that, and that’s what we’re doing. We want to have honesty and integrity with our district. I had a meeting with our leadership team last week, talked about my core beliefs, and they respect that. They want to know, what are the expectations of the interim superintendent? And I want our leadership team to serve with honesty and integrity, and then also be present. When I’m talking with you, I want you to be present with me.”
Emotion and stability
What were the two weeks of Davis’s leave—which turned out to be her last days with the district—like for McNeill, knowing that she could be the last person standing at the end? She did not give much away, limiting herself to “emotional” as her principal description.
“You know, on a personal level, it’s been very emotional,” she said. “You have your ups and your downs. And, you know, you are for all intents and purposes the face of the district as an interim superintendent. And I’m there. I’m a stable voice. I’ve been in this position before as an interim superintendent, and that’s really what I want our community and our employees to understand.”
Some of our sources have described McNeill as “meanspirited” and say that morale within the district workforce has already been hurt just by the knowledge that she is in charge.
“I think anybody that really, truly knows me and gets to know me, understands that I am about honesty and integrity,” she said. “I am forthright, and so sometimes I think somebody that may interpret something as far as an expectation—I don’t know if that’s meanspirited, but it’s—I want to tell you what the lines are so that you understand what the lines are. It’s not fair to you if you don’t know what those lines are.”
Superintendents traditionally make enemies, and it is the equally traditional role of school boards to face down that kind of opposition to its appointees.
The school district has been repeatedly accused of cooking the books on graduation rates, and the school board itself is now noted for cutting an appointee loose just a year after it gave her a raise and a new two-year contract. McNeill will have to deal with the first, but she will have little control over the second if, as interim superintendent, she needs the board’s support in community disputes.
McNeill has been a principal at Allen and Moss elementary schools and was deputy superintendent when the school board turned to her after the Davis firing.