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Back To School In Washoe County


Students, teachers and parents across the state are getting ready to head back to school. 

We're talking to school district superintendents in Nevada to get a sense of what's going on in their communities, and what they're looking forward to this year. 

Traci Davis is superintendent of Washoe County's public schools, the second biggest district in the state. 

Discussion Highlights:

On the rising price of housing in Reno:

"Of course, it is a challenge when you look at teacher pay versus cost of living," she said. "We see this in many areas."

She the district is looking at a number of programs to help teachers find affordable housing, like working with developers who can get federal grants to provide discounted housing for teachers, firefighters and police officers.

Several banks are also offering loans specifically for teachers to buy houses.

On teacher pay:

"It's a complicated puzzle," she said. "It's not just as easy as saying, 'Do we want to pay teachers more?' Absolutely -- but we need more money to do that. That's where you get into the Legislature, and how much per-pupil funding we receive."

She said the district has been working for two years to try to increase pay for teachers, but it really depends on how much money the district gets from the Legislature.

On finding enough teachers:

"I think part of the problem is not just our ability to recruit. It is -- if you look at the national data -- individuals aren't going into the teaching profession. We are all trying to woo the same teacher."

Davis said the number of people going into the teaching profession is down around the country. 

The biggest problem, she said, is finding qualified teachers for math, science and special education.

On two high profile cases involving free speech of students:

"As you do your work daily, sometimes we forget to revisit and share that information or share that information as building leaders," Davis explained.

She said the two cases -- one involving a student who called Rep. Mark Amodei's office during a school safety rally and another involving a student wearing a pro-gun rights T-shirt at school -- were a chance to better understand policies.

It was also a chance to better explain to teachers and staff the dress code rules outlined in Nevada Revised Statutes.

On the school safety task force recommendations:

"As superintendents came together -- one of the common themes is we don't have designated middle school officers or police officers in our schools," she said. "So, that is a need across the state."

Davis was on the task force and she believes the list of recommendations giving to the governor is comprehensive. Besides needing more officers, the task force and Davis want to see more proactive steps taken to find students at risk before they do something to harm someone else.

On arming teachers:

"Teachers are not trained law enforcement officers," she said. "I don't think they should be asked or incentivized to keep weapons accessible in their classroom."

Davis said teachers need to focus on teaching and helping students be successful. She believes asking teachers to carry a weapon is a 'great burden,' which is why she supported the school board's decision to pass a resolution against the idea.

On school funding:

"When you look what we need to become better, we do need to increase our [Distributive Schools Account]. We support modernizing the formula to fund education that meets the needs of all students."

Davis said she would continue to fight for funding for Nevada schools. She said the state needs to work together to figure out how best to fund schools. 

She also said rankings that put Nevada schools at the bottom really don't tell the full story, because they include things like the language spoken in the home and per-pupil spending.

Those factors are ones schools can do little about; when it comes to academic rankings -- the one thing schools can control, she said -- Nevada is not at the bottom.

On marijuana taxes:

"As we look at the marijuana tax, we have to have the conversation of equity," she said.

Davis said there is a difference between equality and equity. She said not "everyone needs the same thing to get to the finish line." And those districts with more students should get a bigger share of the money. 

On a sales tax increase in Washoe County to pay for new schools and repairs:

"So, a lot of these renovations might not be things that you see when you walk in, but they are definitely things that students and teachers will feel as we continue to create an environment that is optimal for learning."

The district is building three new schools. It has plans to replace Hug High School and make repairs to several other historic schools.

On the effort to get to 90 percent graduation rate by 2020:

"An important part of our work is continuing to systematically adjust sustainable equitable access and support for all students and their families," she explained.

Davis said as the district gets closer to a 90 percent graduation rate, it gets more difficult. They are now doing a "deep dive" into the data to find out why some students are not graduating.

She said the district's equity and diversity department is looking for, and then finding ways, to resolve issues of disparity among specific student populations.

Toward that effort, the district is looking at biases in curriculum and instruction. It is also providing professional learning to address problems of equity and inclusion, cultural competency and equitable representation.

On being optimistic about Nevada's school system:

"We are so fortunate to be doing some amazing work around social and emotional learning, cultural competencies, student risk indexes and doing a lot of things nationally to support this work and share this work," she said.  

Davis said she is always optimistic about Nevada's school student, but she says until every educational gap for every child is closed, there will always be work to do.


Traci Davis, superintendent, Washoe County School District

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)