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The Mythological Morrison Miracle
by Andrew Barbano
Apr 22, 2012 | 955 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The next Washoe County school superintendent will be tarred, feathered and crucified.

He or she will be playing against a stacked deck dealt by the very outgoing Heath Morrison who is departing for the land of St. Jesse Helms but leaving us with a new gospel.

“We obviously want someone to continue the strategic plan,” Ken Grein, chair of the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Earlier this year, Dr. M. was named superintendent of the year by his professional club. He scored after manufacturing a two-touchdown increase (56 to 70 percent) in the high school graduation rate in just two years.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, but people believe what they want to believe. The chamber of commerce needs positive press clippings.

Grein told the Associated Press last week that Morrison “has raised the bar on what the board expects from a superintendent”  The next guy will need a very well-stocked bar.

Morrison’s goal for year three is 1 percent. Uno. A single point. A 71 percent graduation rate. So says, the Nevada Department of Education website. No wonder the extroverted marshal got the hell outta Dodge City. By his own admission, his purported progress will prove unsustainable.

The RGJ’s Fact Checker analysis, which rubber-stamped Morrison’s assertions, brought this online comment from Susan Nunes of Medford, Ore.: “I will believe an outsider before I will believe anybody from WCSD. Of course the figures came about because they counted the students differently than previous years. I call it ‘cooking the books’ to make Morrison look like he was the one responsible for the higher graduation rates. Remember, it’s not because students suddenly got serious about school and decided they were going to graduate; it’s because the district decided to use a different ‘accounting’ method. Now you could argue Morrison is ‘responsible’ for the graduation rate going up, but it’s extremely misleading to use methodology to claim you are a miracle worker. You are not going to change the transient character of much of the student body. It doesn’t make sense. Eli Broad Academy people are trained to ‘cook figures’ to make themselves look good. This is one example of it”

Eli Broad is a Los Angeles billionaire who founded a controversial school for administrators which Morrison attended.

The District Accountability summaries on the Nevada Department of Education website underscore Ms. Nunes’ suspicions. The Washoe graduation rate fell from 77.4 percent in 2009 to 71.9 percent in 2011.

However, a Sept. 14, 2011, WCSD press release entitled “Graduation Rate Improves for Second Year in a Row” states, “In addition to the overall increase for WCSD, graduation rates for student sub-groups increased in nearly all instances and showed evidence of narrowing the achievement gap.”

But if you believe data that WCSD filed with the state, Hispanic students showed a 5.1 percent decline from 2009 to 2011, as did blacks (-1.7), American Indians (-5.1) and whites (-3.1). The overall graduation rate dipped by 5.4 points to 71.9 percent. (See the expanded web edition of this column at

Page 47 of the WCSD 2011 Data Summit report insists that the “graduation rate for student population” went from 56 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2011; American Indians 44/50/49; Hispanic 40/45/55; black 42/50/54; white 63/73/78.

“The data represents (sic) the four-year cohort rate, which calculates the graduation rate based on following students who started ninth grade in 2008 and who graduated four years later in 2011,” the PR states. “This comes after a four-year period (2006-2009) when the graduation rate remained stagnant between 55 and 57 percent.”

So do we have one set of books using percentages of actual seniors who graduated and another “cohort” set reporting the percentage of ninth-graders who made it through four years? If so, how can the Morrison cohort rate go up when the senior class rate has dwindled three years in row, even for whites?

The district needs to disaggregate the data and start over to present the taxpayers with a clear picture rather than keep two sets of books.

I’ve seen this show before. Meredith Willson wrote the script in his Broadway hit “The Music Man.”

Supersalesman and con artist Prof. Harold Hill invents a new problem, “the presence of a pool table in your community,” then proceeds to solve it by selling the residents of River City a non-existent marching band to “keep the young ones moral after school.”

Dr. Morrison “became an imaginative accountant instead of a superintendent,” Stead’s Bob Hellen commented at the RGJ Facebook page.

The Music Man has left town and we’ve still got trouble right here in River City, no matter which set of stats you believe.

A 1 percent solution is no solution at all.

WMD Alert

This Wednesday, Nevada will remember workers killed and injured on the job as local unions take part in national Workers Memorial Day. Among other things, speakers will highlight the Silver State’s abominable safety enforcement due to (surprise, surprise!) underfunding. The gathering happens at 4:30 p.m. at the Victorian Square Amphitheater in downtown Sparks. Details at

Be well. Raise hell.

Andrew Barbano is a 43-year Nevadan, editor of and, and first vice president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988. E-mail
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