School District Says It Will Try to Improve Employee Morale

WCSD's Emily Ellison and David Lasic.
WCSD’s Emily Ellison and David Lasic outlined a plan to improve employee morale. One strategy was get more administrators into classrooms and to visit schools.

The Washoe County School District (WCSD) admitted this week that it has a morale problem. That acknowledgment came at Tuesday’s school board of trustees meeting when a plan was presented to address low morale. District officials blamed, in part, the news media and comments on social media for the lack of confidence in district leadership.

The plan was outlined by WCSD Chief of Staff David Lasic and Emily Ellison, chief HR officer.

Personnel shortages, budget cuts, and “continued mischaracterization of district actions in the media is a huge challenge for employee morale,” Ellison said. “[It] really detracts from the good work… In particular, when the media starts calling out specific employees or employee groups or departments, it makes people feel vulnerable and afraid and people read what’s happening on social media and there’s a lot of ugly things out there.”

Ellison did not say what was mischaracterized. The district has been under fire for a number of controversies in recent months.

Those include the illegal firing of an administrator, trying to deny legally entitled unemployment benefits for that administrator, denying public records requests — despite a court order in one case — low morale, dodging the news media, fighting with the state over funding, approving “digital snow days” despite the state forwarning the district that they were not legal, and poorly rolling out digital days on social media.

WCSD Trustee  Scott Kelley.
WCSD Trustee Scott Kelley.

Trustee Scott Kelley praised the plan to address employee morale but questioned why it did not happen earlier.

“Staff morale seems to be lower now than any time that I’ve seen with the district...” he said. “I’m glad that we’re tackling this now.

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“The question that I have, though, is we did a climate survey in 2017… and that climate survey also had really low morale. I’m just wondering why is this plan just coming to fruition now? It just wish it would’ve been done sooner.”

Lasic replied that morale is low for teachers across the country.

“I think we needed to see the trend and make sure this was something that was continuing on and not a one-time thing,” he said.


WCSD Chief of Staff David Lasic's meteoric career climb was called on social media. Lasic said the news and social media calling out district employees makes them "feel vulnerable and afraid." Image: Transparent Nevada screengrab.
CLICK TO ENLARGE: WCSD’s chief of staff David Lasic has had a meteoric career climb in Reno that was called out on social media. District officials said calling out district employees in the news and on social media makes them “feel vulnerable and afraid.” Image: Transparent Nevada screen grab.

The 2017 employee survey was highly critical of Superintendent Davis and WCSD’s administration.

“The ‘district’ under Traci Davis is overtly hostile to teachers through the teacher evaluation system,” wrote one teacher in 2017. “We are top heavy, focused in admin and adults, not kids. We are more interested in press releases than empowering classroom teaching.”

Feedback in 2018 also showed a lack of confidence in district leadership.

Ford Demands Investigation, Gets It

Lauren Ford, Washoe County School District.
Area Superintendent
Lauren Ford,
Washoe County School District.

Area Superintendent Lauren Ford also decried media coverage and demanded, during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, that an outside investigation be conducted to investigate what she said were allegations against her.

Ford, and a number of her supporters and district administrators, said recent media coverage has not been accurate and that she is an effective and compassionate educator.

The allegations made by now Wooster High School Assistant Principal Trina Olsen, whom the district was found to have illegally fired last year, were unfounded and coming from a disgruntled employee, Ford alleged.

“I am here today to put the truth on record and to address the false accusations that have been made about me and Hug High School by a disgruntled employee,” Ford said. “This assault on my character…needs to stop. At no time have I ever given drugs to a student.”

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WCSD’s PR officials have repeatedly rebuked opportunities, including a request to speak with Ford, to comment on the allegations of employee mistreatment at the district. They called the allegations confidential employee matters.

After Tuesday’s board meeting, Olsen said she was pleased the district finally approved an outside investigation but questioned the motive. She said it was another example of disparate treatment.

Trina Olsen

“It’s another example of favoritism by district leadership,” she told ThisisReno. “I’ve followed the rules every step of the way. Employees should be able to count on the same from the superintendent.”

Documents submitted to Davis and the board show that Olsen requested an outside investigation more than a year ago, asking that her case be investigated internally.

A January 3, 2018 letter to the board of trustees asked the board and Davis to review her case and evidence “in a closed meeting alongside the board… This would give [Davis] the opportunity to publically show her concern for failed [a] failed process that perpetuates problems, protects incompetent leadership, and leads to the termination of good employees.

“This will also be an opportunity to approve a third-party, impartial investigation into the serious staff complaints I submitted.”

Olsen said her requests were ignored.

Trustee Kelley said at Tuesday’s meeting that he wanted to learn more about the employee complaint process. He asked that it be added to a future meeting agenda.

WCSD attorney Neil Rombardo.
WCSD attorney Neil Rombardo.

Open Meeting Law Protocol Questioned

When Ford demanded the investigation during public comment Tuesday, WCSD’s chief legal counsel, Neil Rombardo, verbally okayed hiring outside legal counsel after Davis said that Ford relinquished her right to privacy.

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Board President Katy Simon Holland questioned the conversation because it wasn’t on the agenda.

Trustee Katy Simon Holland.

“I’m a little concerned about our discussion of the matter, and counsel I will defer to you,” she said.

“It’s not a vote of the board,” Rombardo replied. “This is a decision of the superintendent.”

“But it’s being discussed in our meeting, and it’s not on the agenda,” Simon Holland replied.

“Well, the open meeting law controls what the board may vote on,” Rombardo retorted. “[The open meeting law] specifically says that we can comment on public comment; we just can’t take action. We’re not asking the board to take action. The superintendent’s asking me to take action.”

ThisisReno asked WCSD how much the investigation will cost, if the district administrators took personal leave time to speak during public comment, and why WCSD decided on an investigation now, rather than more than a year ago when originally requested.

Spokesperson Megan Downs replied:

“Regarding your first question, Board Policy 9165 allows the Chief General Counsel to hire outside lawyers where deemed necessary. As to cost, it depends on the time it takes to investigate.

“You will need to make a public records request for any additional information.

“I don’t have anything further for you at this time.”

Bob Conrad
About Bob Conrad 1120 Articles
Bob Conrad is co-founder of ThisisReno. He manages ThisisReno and Conrad Communications, LLC, his marketing communications consulting company. He also works part time for the University of Nevada, Reno.

1 Comment

  1. I did not read specific ways that the administration will address low morale. Just talking about it and comparing it to other districts with similar problems does NOT address the issue. There are known ways to tackle such problems. Why do district administrators now know and utilize them?

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