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School board approves funding for student support, new staff and electric buses

By Kelsey Penrose

The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday covered wide ranging ground to address challenges faced by the district.

They discussed approving grants to help economically challenged students access Advancement Placement tests, adding more social workers into schools and replacing district buses with electric vehicles. 

Trustees approved a nearly $800,000 grant from the Nevada Department of Education to help prepare students for college and careers. The total amount includes funding for a full-time work-based learning facilitator as well as teacher stipends. 

In addition to making sure students have access to “industry credentials,” career guidance and support, the facilitator will also be responsible for data collection, recruitment, and engaging with staff and stakeholders. 

According to district staff, if grant funding were to end, these positions would likely be eliminated. Funds under this grant will run through June 30, 2024.

WCSD also applied for and received $500,000 in funding to increase the number of underserved students enrolling in and completing Advanced Placement (AP) courses by providing test fee assistance to students receiving free reduced lunch, those within underrepresented populations and those taking more than one exam. 

The AP test fee assistance will pay for 10,000 $50 tests over the next two years for students who are economically challenged or underserved. 

“Some of these children might be taking multiple tests,” Lauren Ohlin, the district’s director of grants, said. “They might be able to afford one, but if they’re taking two or three AP classes, that becomes a big expense for them.” 

The grant will also provide $42,000 for additional tutoring for AP students to prepare for the exams.

Acceptance of the grant was unanimous. 

Communities in Schools to provide social workers

Trustees voted to approve a partnership with Communities in Schools to provide social workers in multiple schools from the elementary to high school levels during the 2022-2023 school year.

Communities in Schools is the leading dropout prevention organization in the U.S., according to staff. 

“Communities in Schools is present in 26 states including [Washington D.C.], and has a robust presence in the state of Nevada,” the district’s counseling coordinator Katherine Loudon said. “The model provides a minimum of one staff member who helps to support a variety of services on campus which includes clothes, food, school supplies, support for academic and computer skills, referrals for academic help, child care, mental health and community collaboration.”  

Funds would be used to address services at the schools through the use of social workers at the following schools: 

  • William Anderson Elementary School
  • Libby Booth Elementary School
  • Desert Skies Middle School
  • Glen Duncan S.T.E.M. Academy
  • Proctor R. Hug High School
  • Lena Juniper Elementary School
  • Bernice Mathews Elementary School
  • Natchez Elementary School
  • Virginia Palmer Elementary School
  • Sparks Middle School
  • Sparks High School
  • Fred W. Traner Middle School
  • E. Otis Vaughn Middle School 

The cost of student services would total $497,640 and is a matching grant with Communities in Schools. 

A discussion was brought up during public comment about what types of data Communities in Schools collects and retains. 

Public Commenter John Epolito, who has warned the district about privacy concerns for years, asked the board how long data is stored on students by Communities in Schools. In 2017 student data was stolen in a breach of Edmodo, a social networking educational platform.

WCSD Ombudsman and Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca
WCSD Chief Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca

“They are storing data securely,” district Chief Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca said. “[The data] in the database that they store includes student demographic characteristics, what we would call directory information available on Infinite Campus, and case notes from case managers. […] They have their own retention policy that they adhere to, they adhere to FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act], and we have not had any breach that we’re aware of. They’ve been a great partner.”

When asked how long Communities in Schools keeps the data on students, LaMarca said the district had asked for that policy but had not yet been given it. 

“But it is not in perpetuity, like was stated,” LaMarca said. “We’ll share that with the board when it becomes available.” 

“Communities in Schools have tendered a lot of care for schools – particularly a lot of schools that are at-risk schools. I would encourage any trustees to reach out locally and talk to them, learn about what they’re doing,” Trustee Adam Mayberry said. 

 The motion was unanimously approved. 

New CCTV cameras for six schools

The Board unanimously agreed to the replacement of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras at six WCSD schools, costing nearly $125,000.

The schools receiving new cameras are Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology High School (AACT), Damonte Ranch High School, Galena High School, North Valleys High School, Spanish Springs High School and Sparks High School. 

Trustee Mayberry said Reed High School, which was not included in the list, had previously reached out stating their cameras were in need of replacement. District staff said Reed’s CCTV system was not due for replacement until 2024.

Mayberry said he would like to see camera repairs and replacements fast-tracked at high schools, especially given the nationwide problems with school violence. 

Replacement plans for outdated facilities 

Guests toured the new Procter R. Hug High School during the “Topping Out” ceremony on Feb. 26, 2021. The high school was paid for with funds generated through the 2016 voter-approved WC-1 sales tax increase. Image: Isaac Hoops / This Is Reno

The Board voted to retain Cannon Design to provide a district-wide school facilities assessment and to develop a modernization plan to inform major capital investments in existing schools over the next 10 years. 

The goal is to provide the district with a plan to enhance the level of facility equity district-wide.  

Of the close to 100 school facilities in the district, nearly 45% are over 50 years old. District staff said that has taken a toll.

In November 2016, local voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to fund constructing, renovating and maintaining school facilities. 

Since that time, the district has constructed and opened, or will soon open, seven entirely new schools and replaced or expanded three existing schools. 

Cannon will begin work in August and share major updates to the board in October and December of this year and February 2023. A final report and recommendations will be complete by April 2023 to guide planning for fiscal years 2024-2028. 

Human Resources to hire Nutrition Services recruiter 

The board voted to add a temporary Nutrition Services Personnel Recruiter position for the 2022-23 school year to work with Human Resources staff.

Currently, WCSD has four recruiters on staff to fill hundreds of job openings. 

As of June 22 Nutrition Services had 72 vacant positions throughout the district, most of which are part-time, school-based workers who help to prepare and serve breakfast and lunch meals within schools. 

The cost of the recruiter, $77,512, will be paid for out of the Nutrition Services Enterprise Fund. 

Trustees approve referral incentives 

“I think the answer to the recruiting labor shortage is much more in-depth and much more complicated than spending it.”

Trustees approved an agreement between WCSD and four employee unions –  Washoe Education Association (WEA), the Washoe County School Principal’s Association (WSPA), the Washoe Educational Support Professionals (WESP) and the Washoe County School Police Officers Association (WCSPOA) – to pay referral incentives totaling up to $2,000. 

Current union employees can earn the incentive for referring new employees into specific education support professional positions with  critical staffing shortages including bus drivers, pupil support assistants, housekeeping, nutritional services, and special education aides and assistants. 

The district is spending $235,000 paid from ESSER funds on a variety of programs like the referral bonuses to increase the number of applicants for open positions. 

“I don’t think we can spend our way out of this problem,” Trustee Jeff Church said. “I think the answer to the recruiting labor shortage is much more in-depth and much more complicated than spending it. I’m really troubled because I just don’t think we’ve addressed the bigger picture [of these shortages].” 

Staff said they are also engaged in other avenues of recruitment to address shortages in addition to offering referral incentives.

In addition to referral incentives, the board also approved the payment of an extra $1,500 for Education Support Professional (ESP) employees returning for the upcoming school year. The add-on will be paid from ESSER funds and add to an already-approved $1,000 incentive paid from the district’s general fund. 

The total estimated cost for the incentives is $4.5 million in ESSER funds and $3 million from the general fund. 

The decision to create the add-on differentials was due to the percentage of employees reporting significant professional burnout. The number of workers exiting public education has increased, therefore, action must be taken to incentivize employees to remain within the district, according to staff. 

The board also heard a presentation on employee recruitment. Between June 8 and July 20 a total of 86 applications were received for jobs in transportation, nutrition services and housekeeping with 59 new hires recorded. 

Within transportation, 220 of 260 driver positions have been filled. Current projections show 190-200 daily bus drivers will be available for the start of school. 

“I don’t think anyone in the district feels great about kids not going to get to go to school every day,” Board President Angela Taylor said. “There are very few things that have kept me up at night and this is one of them. We do kids, we do education; we can’t do them if they aren’t there.” 

WCSD Superintendent Susan Enfield

“It pains us all to think of the impact that this will have on our families and students, especially those who rely on us the most for transportation,” Superintendent Susan Enfield said. “We have an [executive leadership team] meeting on Monday morning and prior to that we will be preparing some scenarios, ideas for what we can do around communication, around options, to engage maybe with our families who are able to assist during this finite period.” 

Trustee Taylor asked whether or not double runs would have any impact. Transportation staff said the current plan will include some double runs, but full blown double runs in the afternoon would not create the savings necessary. 

“It is a tool in our toolbox,” Adam Searcy, chief facilities management officer, said.

Rotation Plan Areas will be available on Wednesday, July 27, and will be the same as the previous school year. As neighborhoods return to daily transportation, impacted families will receive advance notification. 

Green buses added to fleet

Trustees voted to accept $1.16 million from NV Energy incentives and Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) grants to cover the cost of two electric buses and installation of two charging stations. 

The district applied for two Blue Bird “Type D” electric school buses, which have a 78-student seating capacity and can travel up to a 120-mile range using a 155 kWh battery capacity. 

The buses each carry a $380,000 base price, but will cost just over $500,000 each with district specified features. 

The charging station cost is not included in the estimated price, and could cost up to $140,000 including installation. 

Funding can cover up to 45% of the cost of the replacement bus. 

In receiving preliminary estimates from the district’s current bus provider, it is projected that the buses could cost $1 million total. 

The choice is a financial one, according to staff, due to annual maintenance cost reduction as well as the prohibitive cost of diesel and diesel engines. Annual fuel and maintenance for a gas-powered bus is $10,000-$11,000, versus an estimated $1,000 per year projected for an electric bus. 

“Don’t we have to burn coal for electricity?” Trustee Ellen Minetto asked. “How is it total renewable energy?” 

“Here in northern Nevada we don’t really burn coal, it’s primarily natural gas,” Jason Geddes, the district’s energy and sustainability manager, said. “It’s also about 50% geothermal at night time, which is when we’d be charging these buses.” 

Cost and availability of diesel engines will end up being prohibitive, according to staff, and electric vehicles will end up saving money in the long run. They added that improved air quality is an important factor for students, as well as communities in general.

New superintendent welcomed

The board offered a welcome to new WCSD Superintendent Susan Enfield, the district’s 13th superintendent who moved to Nevada from Washington to take over the position.

“I want to welcome Superintendent Enfield, it’s really nice to have you here and I’m looking forward to your long and prosperous career with Washoe County School District,” Trustee Mayberry said.  

“The reality of being here has far exceeded what I hoped for when I took the leap to come here,” Enfield said.

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