Douglas School district prepares for uncertain terrain
Tribune News Service
GARDNERVILLE, Nev. – By most accounts, 2009 was a difficult year for the Douglas County School District.
Budget cuts, ethics complaints and the resignation of a superintendent were among the more publicized issues the district wrestled with throughout the year.
Yet, in the calm that follows a storm, district leaders now have the tools of experience and hindsight to help them navigate the uncertain terrain of 2010.
“It was a learning experience, a growing experience,” School Board President Cindy Trigg said Dec. 30 of the preceding year. “I like being a lifelong learner, and I’m grateful for being able to have experiences and learn from them, though I’m anxious to have a much less intense year. Personally, I think 2010 is going to go very well. We’ve all learned and seen some things we didn’t think we’d ever see.”
Trigg said that learning occurred in “a critical period of time.”
“The bond, the budget – we had so many big projects that were time-sensitive and time-critical that we didn’t get to pay attention to the board growing as a body as far as professional development. Now, we have a lot of experience that we can look back on with critical thinking.”
For example, Trigg said, last year’s budget cuts have better prepared the district for any future cuts.
“We know we’re going to have challenges,” she said. “We don’t know when the special session is or how big budget cuts may be, but last year we were able to accommodate the budget cuts, and I’m confident we could do so again. Unfortunately, it’s always at the expense of somebody or some program, and it’s very difficult to do. We can look at other districts in the state and country and see what they’ve done. Everyone in education is suffering.”
Trigg hopes that after a tumultuous year school board members can regroup and move forward together.
“Our biggest challenge, and we’re up to it, is going to be finding a new superintendent,” she said.
“The important thing is to analyze what we need in a superintendent and make sure we have a policy and procedure in place, so that the transition is a smooth process this time.”
Obviously, Trigg said, the district needs a superintendent who puts children’s needs first.
“I’m also looking for someone who is open-minded and willing to think outside the box,” she said. “They need to be able to listen to administrators and embrace new ideas. We want new ideas and bold ideas brought forth to the board.”
Trigg said the school district’s chief mission is and always will be to motivate students to learn.
“We want students to be able to enjoy learning every day. So. how can we get them to embrace that? How can we motivate them to be lifelong learners?” she said. “We have to continue to educate students in our community to the best of our ability. Changes in education are much faster now. Technology comes fast and furious, and we need to be able to stay on top of it. I think we can. I think the district office, the board, the schools and the community are up to the task. I am looking forward to the new year, and I am very optimistic.”
Interim Superintendent John Soderman shares Trigg’s optimism.
“What we face, other districts are facing as well,” he said. “We’re not alone in this, and, given our personnel, I think we will do just fine.”
Soderman said state budget cuts remain the big obstacle for 2010.
“You’re talking about programs and learning and livelihood,” he said. “A lot of what could have been done with the least amount of pain has been done, and it sounds like we’re facing even more drastic budget cuts.”
However, like Trigg, Soderman believes the district established an effective process of handling reductions last year.
“It’s a good starting point,” he said. “But we really do need more clarification (from the state). We’ve heard everything from 1 percent to 10 percent. We certainly don’t want to go down the 10 percent line and create that kind of excitement and fear if it’s not going to be close to that. But if we are asked to develop a plan, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Gov. Jim Gibbons already has asked the Economic Forum for updated revenue projections. According to the Associated Press, the state’s $73 million fiscal year deficit is growing larger by the day.
Soderman said the school district could weather reductions for this fiscal year.
“In that case, we’re in relatively good shape,” he said. “But putting together next year’s budget will be more difficult.”
Moving to test scores, Soderman said there is a concern of “flat achievement” among students.
Last year, five schools in Douglas County were placed on a federal watch list for not meeting adequate yearly progress as mandated by No Child Left Behind.
Part of the solution, Soderman said, lies in “formative assessments,” tests designed to improve learning rather than merely measuring it.
“Instead of high-stakes tests, we basically break curriculum into smaller pieces and test along the way,” he said. “They should give us information for teaching right now and addressing issues in real time, versus an assessment at the end when students may not do well and there’s no chance of doing something about it.”
Of course, Soderman said, the district’s selection of a new superintendent in the spring will be one of the most important decisions of the new year.
He said school board members will be meeting for a workshop Jan. 28 at Genoa Lakes, followed by their annual strategic planning session on Jan. 29.
“We’ve done the workshops in the past, so the board can get together and talk about working as group,” he said, “about what makes a strong board continue as a team. That doesn’t mean they’re always going to vote the same, but rather how information goes back and forth between the board and the superintendent.
“What are the expectations at a board meeting?” Soderman said. “The workshop is a chance to clarify how we can work together. It should produce a written document that clarifies guidelines we all hold each other accountable to.”
In contrast, the strategic planning session is a “think tank” of board members, principals, teachers and other staff, and a prime opportunity to bring in superintendent search consultant Jim Huge, Soderman said.
“We then can begin shopping for a superintendent who has the skills and a track record of success in areas of interest to us,” Soderman said.