At a “brown bag lunch” that Washoe school superintendents have held in recent years, Superintendent Pedro Martinez listens to a question from a local resident.

The life of a school superintendent is never a bed of poppies, but Pedro Martinez could be forgiven if he were feeling particularly hard pressed lately.

A terrible tragedy engulfed the school district on Oct. 21, drawing the attention of Martinez, parents, school board members and others concerned with education in the county away from the normal, difficult functioning of a school district. Martinez had to lead the district’s response in coping with a whole array of sudden problems like morale of both students and teachers and shutting down a major Sparks school for a week—and then reopening it in an atmosphere of siege. (The school district has requested that the state superintendent count the cancelled days as “school days in session” due to uncontrollable circumstances, so that the students would not have to make up the days.) Moreover, he is serving in an era of poisonous skepticism toward public officials.

Speaking at a “brown bag lunch” at the Harrah’s Automobile Museum with local residents in the aftermath of the tragedy, Martinez fielded questions dealing with everything from testing standards to why children could not take uneaten portions of their cafeteria food with them. The questions suggested that residents and parents are ready to go back to normal education issues.

Comments by Martinez, then and afterward, suggested that he has a philosophy, in dealing with problems, of staying as optimistic as possible and plowing ahead. He also never strays very far from the notion that the school district has a role in economic development in the region, which raises hackles in some quarters that are critical of the Broad Academy approach to education. Both Martinez and his predecessor attended the Academy, which trains school officials to bring the techniques of business to bear on education, but which critics consider a corporate madrasah.

Martinez told his audience that he is regularly frustrated because most of the state lags behind Washoe County in school performance.

When Nevada school superintendent James Guthrie complained about the same thing, he was forced out of his job, which is now appointive by the governor instead of the state school board. So it’s a sensitive subject. When a consultant made a comment about the poor reputation of Nevada schools at a meeting, Gov. Brian Sandoval flared up instead of accepting the conclusion, so there are political risks at drawing attention to the problem.

“I think one of the challenges up here in Washoe County, we outperform the state but yet we’re in a state of, oh, almost last in the country in graduation rate, very low in college-going rates,” Martinez said. “We do very well here in Washoe County. One of the challenges that I have as superintendent is trying to separate those two components because we’re trying to attract companies to come here, families are moving in here. And so, for me, I just always feel it’s my responsibility to always be pushing the state about ’How do we get better as a state?’ And I want to do my part. And we do our part by getting our results.”

What does he do about the defensiveness of some about Nevada’s poor rankings?

“But I just think, frankly, you know, it’s the facts, so just tell the truth,” he said. “And I haven’t met any politician who doesn’t acknowledge where we’re at in graduation rates, who doesn’t acknowledge the fact that we’re so high on the bad lists and so low on many of the good lists.”

The members of his audience asked questions that dealt with federal/state school relations and whether some of the things imposed by federal requirements work well for the school district, making clear that federal requirements play a big role in what happens in local schools.

Though Nevada has long received federal education money, it has never been much. It has seldom, if ever, been higher than a single-digit percentage of the amount Nevada spends on education, and usually low single digits, which is all the more remarkable because the state’s investment in schools is small. Yet because the state accepts those small federal amounts, it is forced to accept the strings that come attached. Thus, the federal government gets a lot of control for a very small investment.

Martinez is more concerned with the small local investment in education.

“People are so used to doing more with less,” Martinez said. “You know, I’ve been here now five years. This is my fifth year in Nevada, and I have a lot of respect for the communities in Nevada because I think that’s just part of the DNA here. The challenge I find, though, is that if we want to set a strong vision, whether it’s for education or other areas of the state—economic development, social services net—most states, they’ve learned that you can’t do that without investment of resources. And frankly, it is a little bit of frustration for me but, again, the best I can do is push what our vision is and advocate for our children and our community.”

One of the difficulties educators must deal with these days is myths that everyone “knows” are true, many of them created by news coverage, about education—that parents and children are fleeing public for private schools (they’re not), that schools are violent (they’re not), that major corporations use financial incentives to motivate their employees (most don’t) and so schools should do the same. These myths often have an impact on policy, as when—after the cluster of 1990s school shootings—large amounts of education money were diverted to security, though schools remained overwhelmingly safe. After the Sparks Middle School shooting, the Poynter Institute cautioned journalists (see Upfront, facing page) against exaggerating the influence of bullying on the school environment.

Martinez said he needs to do public education on this kind of faulty information.

“One of the purposes of these types of meeting [at the Harrah’s museum] is to answer questions that parents ask so that we can try to just give facts,” he said. “So I think for us, the way that we try to combat it, there’s always going to be perceptions, sometimes myths—whether it’s ’common core,’ whether it’s issues around discipline, bullying, etcetera—one of the goals is to just give more information to parents. Our biggest enemy around myths and perceptions is there’s not enough information. And so that’s one of the goals for these events. That’s the way we fight it. I don’t know if it gets in the way of the job as much as I see it as part of my responsibility to make sure that we provide parents and children the right information.”

While most of the post-shooting attention has been on students and parents, teachers had already been conscious of the risks of guns in schools and had pushed through their organizations for more protections. In the aftermath of the Sparks incident, Martinez has had to deal with morale, and he thinks teachers have been heartened by what they saw happen in the community.

“Well, you know, with this tragedy that’s happened, of course, it’s incremental. I mean we’re—the healing process is going to be a long one—and so we’re slowly helping the school district get back to normal. Overall in the district and the county, we’re still struggling with it. But I will tell you that also I have seen the community come together and our schools have come together. It’s amazing to me to see the kids from other schools [than Sparks Middle] and the things … they’ve sent, you know—posters with all the kids signing, showing their support. So it’s a tragedy, but I’m hopeful that the community will be stronger coming out of it.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...