Washoe County School District Superintendent Heath Morrison's nomination as a finalist for national Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators is the latest recognition the district has earned.
Morrison said that his recognition -- along with district's school board being a finalist for a national award and the communications department winning a national award -- is a reflection of the district as whole gaining altitude for its accomplishments.
A 14 percent rise in the graduation rate over the past two years, improvements in test scores and a wider profile in the community -- all amid substantial budget cuts -- are reasons cited for his recognition as Nevada's principal of the year and this latest honor.
The other finalists are Diane L. Frost, superintendent of Asheboro City Schools, Asheboro, N.C.; Lorraine Lange, superintendent of Roanoke County Public Schools, Roanoke, Va.; and Susan Smith Bunting, superintendent of Indian River School District, Selbyville, Del.
In an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, Morrison shared his thoughts about being a finalist for the award, budget challenges, how he will challenge himself to improve and being courted by other school districts and organizations.
Question: What do you think you did to earn being a national Superintendent of the Year finalist?
Answer: The thing about awards and recognitions is you do the work that has to be done, you do the things you're passionate about, and you hope there are some successes. You hope to get noticed for the right reasons. There is some recognition of what's going on here in Washoe County and not just about how well you say you're doing, but you actually have to show some metrics and data to validate it.
For this particular award, I think it's a reflection of the hard work of our board, our principals, our teachers, the way the community has embraced what we do.
What we always say is we're nowhere near where we need to be, but we've made some tremendous progress in a short period of time facing some pretty unprecedented budget cuts, and that's very meaningful to me.
Q: How have the severe budget cuts worked out this year in terms of things maybe you didn't anticipate?
A: I think the way we've approached the budget in the last year -- from the time the governor proposed his initial budget all the way through the final budget being adopted ... we tried to reach out to the community, talk about the budget challenges to get input, but constantly come back to making our decision based on the strategic plan.
Instead of funding things that we've funded in the past, we're going to fund things according to the strategic plan, which was created in collaboration with the community.
There aren't any surprises in the budget because we've done the things we said we were going to do, and so far, we've had the results we thought we were going to have.
Q: Have you had to make some course adjustments since the first of the year to accomplish what you set out to do?
A: The biggest impact I see with our budget so far is our increase in graduation rates, raising test scores and closing the achievement gap. There is so much more we could do if we had the budget we had two years ago: More programs, we could accelerate the pace. ...
My biggest worry is that we're going to hit a sweet spot ... you kind of hit a plateau.
Q: How do you challenge yourself to improve yourself to have an impact on the school district?
A: ... I try to tell other people I'm proud of their work and provide accolades to people. But after we get a set of test scores in that has gone up, I'm looking at ways we can improve. I'm constantly thinking, "How do we get better." And when I say, "we," as a school district, that starts with me, everyday. It's how do I communicate better, how do I reach out more, how do I support our school leaders at our individual school sites?
For me, I'm kind of like you're only as good as your last set of test scores.
Q: Having become a finalist for this award and given the consistent murmurs that you've been courted by other school districts, do you expect those offers to pick up?
A: You always focus on the job you're doing now, and if you're doing a really good job, other people will seek you out and present other opportunities to you. (I've) never been one of those people who's always looking for what else is out there; do the job that you've committed to do, do it to the very best of your ability, and if there are other opportunities are out there, they will come find you.
I have on several occasions since coming to Washoe been approached by other school districts and other organizations about other career opportunities. Somebody asks if you would consider, you think about it and talk to your family about it.
But there's nothing that has made me think that I want to be anywhere else than right here, right now. I'm very happy to be the superintendent in Washoe County. We've got some things done; we've got a lot of work to do. I'm not actively pursuing anything; I will not actively pursue anything.
But if somebody contacts me, you have to listen; you owe that to yourself and your family.