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Superintendent Davis Gets Annual Evaluation as Trustees Find Fault with the Process


Superintendent Traci Davis’ annual evaluation on Thursday determined she was “accomplished,” although Washoe County School District trustees took aim at the process while the public at times criticized the board.

Davis was evaluated for the 2016-17 school year in six areas: strategic district leadership, instructional leadership, systemic leadership, collaborative leadership, board relationships and personal/professional ethics, and organizational leadership.

Those who spoke in the packed boardroom largely supported Davis, although a few district employees said they were overworked and that budget cuts and unfunded state mandates have been taking their toll on employee morale.

“Working conditions of employees are the learning conditions of our students,” said Ed Kendall, a district police officer who noted Davis has been supportive of school police.

Bryn Lapenta, senior director of the student accounting office, said with prior superintendents she used to work in a culture of fear and was afraid to make decisions or talk about new ideas.

“I wasn’t treated respectfully,” Lapenta said. “With Traci, there’s been a culture of respect, growth, student achievement, and student success.”

Davis scored a preliminary 2.67 out of 4.0 from trustees on her evaluation, meaning she was “emerging.” But after hours of discussion, the board voted 4-2 to approve an “accomplished” rating, the next level up. Trustees Scott Kelley and Katy Simon Holland dissented and Trustee Veronica Frenkel was absent.

John Mayer
John Mayer

“We’ve got a superintendent who’s outstanding,” Trustee John Mayer said. “She’s not anything less than accomplished.”

Some board members, along with Davis, pointed to a lack of clarity. The rubric and metrics on which the evaluation occurred were done when the prior board was seated. The majority of the board members took office in January and could only rate Davis on a half year.

“If I received a 1, I need to receive documentation on why it’s a 1,” said Davis, referencing her contract. “If evidence of a 4 exists and you get a 1, how does that reconcile?”

Trustee Debra Feemster said the process wasn’t even-handed and that some questions were worded unfairly. Teachers who aren’t performing get notified in advance and are given time to improve and it’s the same process for the superintendent, she said.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Feemster said. “We could’ve met with the superintendent at any given time.”

Others said Davis’ preliminary mediocre rating wasn’t justified.

Former trustee Barbara McLaury said the board should be more effective and focus on collaboration, not competition.

“I find Traci to be a warm, kind, generous person who believes in advocating for all children,” McLaury said. “She’s on a relentless quest to serve all students.”

Retired teacher George Hardaway said Davis is the most caring superintendent he’s worked with.

“And I started my career with Superintendent Marvin Picollo in the late 1960s,” Hardaway said.

The Ratings

Washoe Schools Superintendent Traci Davis. Image: Ty O’Neil.

Simon Holland noted the number ratings this year had different meanings than last year, so comparing data from year-to-year might not be conclusive.

Davis was scored on a 1 to 4 scale, with 1 meaning “developing,” 2 being “emerging,” 3 being “accomplished,” and 4 meaning “distinguished.” Last year’s numbers meant ineffective, minimally effective, effective, and highly effective.

OnStrategy and Human Resources Connection consulting firms conducted the evaluation. The district’s personnel office doesn’t do superintendent evaluations because there’s a perception that staff might be more comfortable providing feedback to a third party instead of their employer.

Davis’ high points were a 3.1 in instructional leadership and 3.0 in board relationships and personal/professional ethics.

“All trustees stated that Superintendent Davis is very active and present in the community,” the evaluation’s summary stated. “A majority of the board feels she creates a culture of respect through her integrity, honesty, and fairness.”

It also noted that Davis has a “laser focus” on student achievement and that emphasis on graduation rates excludes other important goals. High School graduation rates have increased under Davis’ leadership from 77 percent for the 2015-16 school year to 84 percent for the 2016-17 year.

Davis was appointed interim superintendent in fall 2014 and the board voted her in as superintendent in summer 2015.

A main area Davis could improve is communication, the evaluation said. She’s been less forth-coming about failures and debacles, especially the 2018 fiscal year budget that was presented to the board too late without adequate time to assess it, according to the evaluation. To avoid the same mistake, district staff and the board have already begun to examine the 2019 budget.

She scored 2.9 in collaborative leadership, 2.8 in strategic leadership, 2.4 in systemic leadership, and 2.2 in organizational leadership.

“Lack of trust – needs to work on developing trust with staff, community, and board – sense of unease, not feeling valued or appreciated,” one trustee wrote.

“Creates a culture of fear – intimidating, feeling of being talked at, fear of retribution, threatening, afraid for their jobs, rumors of retaliation if you don’t agree,” another trustee wrote.

Four of the seven trustees—Feemster, Simon Holland, Kelley, and Malena Raymond— evaluated Davis for the first time. Evaluations were anonymous.

“The trustees described a range of experiences with Superintendent Davis from negative to positive, which were reflected in their scores,” the evaluation said. “For example, evidence cited as positive evidence from one board member was cited as negative evidence from another board member, which displayed a lack of consensus among and between the Board of Trustees.”

Public Perception

A survey sent to district leadership, school administrators, certified staff, education support staff, and the community show an overall perception of 5.67 on a scale of 0 to 10. This was the first year such question was asked.

There were 7,064 surveys sent out and 1,191 replied, a 16 percent response rate. Of those who responded, 106 were at the district level, 119 were from the community and 966 from individual schools. Surveys were sent to all district employees.

When asked the No. 1 thing Davis could do to improve the district, the top reply was to support, listen to, and engage with teachers and the second most common response was to focus on student success and not just on graduation rates.

Davis said she recently invited teachers districtwide to two “conversation corner” meetings to discuss any issues on their mind. Meetings were held at different times, days of the week, and locations to reach as many people as possible, she said. A combination of five teachers out of about 4,000 attended, but Davis said she’ll continue to hold such meetings.

“It’s opportunity versus who shows up,” she said.

Davis’ contract is up for renewal next month.

On The Web: Review the draft Superintendent Evaluation Report here.

Carla O'Day
Carla O'Day
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.