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School year in review, part II: District dealing with the downpour
by Jessica Garcia
Jul 05, 2010 | 908 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns by education reporter Jessica Garcia examining the Washoe County School District’s actions for the 2009-10 school year.  

Bad budget news reared its ugly head early on as the spring semester got underway. Despite multiple cuts made prior to the start of 2010, the district still had a $37 million shortfall to grapple with. Administrators went to the teachers union and managed to renegotiate some of the terms of the educators’ contracts, including the addition of furlough days and forgoing salary increases. The Central Services department shrank and the finance department dipped into the district’s contingency funds, meant for “rainy days,” as CFO Gary Kraemer said on multiple occasions.

Clearly, now, it’s not just raining. It’s a torrential downpour and there’s supposed to be an even worse forecast on the horizon for 2010-11.

In two years of covering the district, I’ve learned a lot about how education works. My eyes have been opened to many issues and I have come to understand Washoe County’s strengths and its weaknesses. One of those debilities came in the campaign for WCSD-1, the 2008 proposal to reach into taxpayers’ pockets for school revitalization projects.

The voters didn’t just say no to handing over their dollars to fix up older schools and update classroom technology — they shouted it and the district is paying dearly for that.

That probably stems from another encumbrance: communication. Earlier this year, I had the gall to question the board and district officials’ frequent use of convoluted jargon, more than a slight impediment to the goal of transparency. I quote myself, “I’ve been covering you for two years and if I don’t understand what you’re saying, how will most parents?”

I’ve repeated that comment recently to certain individuals as a reminder that if they want the support behind what they’re doing and for whom they’re campaigning — teachers and students, ultimately — they must convey their message clearly and persuasively, two key elements sorely lacking in the campaign of 2008. Most parents, I’m certain, didn’t understand what their hard-earned money would go to and how it would help their child’s school. Even worse, those who don’t even have children in school likely didn’t feel it was worth their investment.

As the budget storm builds heading into the 2011 school year and legislative session, the district will have another opportunity to tell the state’s leaders, many of whom will be new and (hopefully) have different ideas about how to solve the education crisis, that the district is in the midst of reforming itself on a limited budget. But administrators will need to show results from their new strategic plan, the tangible effects of which I’m only just now beginning to understand after months of meetings.

The spring semester has been a time to re-evaluate the WCSD’s game plan. The district could be on the right track by delaying the vote on the renewal of the 2002 rollover bond, its fallback plan after the failure of WCSD-1. Instead of rushing to get the measure on the ballot this year, administrators decided to wait until 2012 when it will absolutely need the money for capital improvements.

I’m confident many positive changes are still to come for the school district because the right people are in the right places. I will stay tuned to see how they might weather the storm and reach the calm.

Jessica Garcia is the education reporter for the Sparks Tribune. She can be reached at jgarcia@dailysparkstribune.com.
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