Diane Nicolet seeks the youth vote.
Diane Nicolet seeks the youth vote.

Any teacher will tell you there’s a big difference between an educator and an administrator. Cody Johnson will tell you there’s a similarly big gap between a school board member and a politician. He and fellow first time candidate Diane Nicolet are facing the very high name recognition factor of David Aiazzi, who jumped into the school board race after serving three Reno City Council terms.

Johnson, 32, is one of three candidates running for Washoe County School Board in District E. A former UNR football player, he’s now a father of two and heavily involved in the local parent-teacher organization, which he said inspired his first bid for public office.

“Now that I’m running, everybody asks me if I’m going to be a politician,” Johnson said, “I don’t have any plans to go anywhere outside our community. I’m running for my children and other’s people’s children. That’s where I like to be, is in public service. To me, it’s important.”

Johnson may not spend time thinking about a political future, but he dedicates plenty to programs like Care Chest, Community Compact and Say Yes to Kids.

“These are a few of the best ways to bring parents on board,” and one of our problems is parent involvement, Johnson said. “We have good parent teacher organizations in some places, so the ones who are involved are very involved, but that doesn’t happen everywhere.”

The school district will cleave $40 million from their budget this year alone. In a county that’s already subsidizing full-day kindergarten programs with money saved through early retirement packages, Johnson fears that a “lack of accountability” among parents and educators could further endanger services.

Nicolet agreed. She’s hopeful that Washoe’s County’s Parent University can provide the district a better way to bring parents into the fold.

“Over the years parents have had less and less involvement in their child’s education,” Nicolet said. “I personally feel that they’re the child’s first and always teacher. A lot of people had terrible experiences in school, and they don’t necessarily want to be involved, but we have to get them reengaged.”

Nicolet said budget constraints in the district only amplify the importance of community involvement in education. She thinks her years of experience as director of the child care center at Truckee Meadows Community College would provide a boost to budget-wrangling efforts.

“To understand the whole, you have to identify the pieces,” Nicolet said of the school district’s budget. “I’m very good at identifying the pieces, at finding efficiencies.”

The school board is primarily responsible for adopting budgets and curricula, though they also oversee staff and student progress. A superintendent carries out the administration of those broad goals. The current superintendent, Heath Morrison, is leaving the district this month.

There were substantial gains in K-12 state test scores and high school graduation rates during Morrison’s tenure, though some critics say they were a product of a new method of calculating rates, not of actual gains. Nevertheless, the current school board is very high on him, and he was recently named best superintendent in the nation. His is a high bar, but Nicolet thinks the county can clear it:

“[Morrison]’s leaving behind what I call a legacy leadership model,” Nicolet said. “He put systems in place that are enduring.”

“Can some of it be undermined?” she asks. “Absolutely. It takes you years to build things that can fall apart in a week. I don’t think that’ll happen, because we have a great plan. But we still have a long way to go. I mean we still have to talk about where were going to find $40 million.”

Taking on a lighter budget, heavier performance expectations and the hiring of a new superintendent seems like a pretty thankless job, especially since trustees get a fraction of what Reno City Council members earn. That makes it hard to say why anyone would to want to be a school board member, much less Dave Aiazzi.

A school board gig would help the term-limited city councilmember remain in the public eye, though Aiazzi said he hadn’t even thought about using the post as a springboard for a different office.

“I’m just looking for another way to contribute,” Aiazzi said. “I looked around at what I could do in the community with what I know, and I thought I could bring something to the table for the school district.”

“I certainly know how to deal with budgets, staff members and with the public. I’m not going to throw all that experience away just because I’m term-limited.”

A public-first approach is just fine by Aiazzi’s opponents. They, too, seem to put the school district ahead of personal ambitions, something that has made for a refreshing lack of politicking in District E. No one’s volleying ad hominem attacks or questioning credentials. No one seems to be maneuvering for a state office or worrying about his or her hair. But a lack of political drama doesn’t mean a lack of competition, as Cody Johnson is quick to point out.

“I hate to lose,” the burly UNR lineman-turned-PTA member said with a smile, “You can put that in your story.”

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