If this were an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” it would open with a shot of the kids on the couch and the voice of the father saying, “Today I’m going to tell you the story of how I lost complete faith in your school board.” That, unfortunately, is where I am at right now. I’ve been engaged in these so-called education reform battles for a number of years now, and every time I think I’ve seen it as bad as it can get, I get proven wrong.
Currently, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is involved in a search for a new Director of Schools. June 30th was the last day of employment for outgoing director Dr. Jesse Register. The original timeline called for a new director to be in place by 7/1/15. However, since leadership failed to lay out a proper timeline, that deadline had to be postponed. This postponement necessitated the appointment of an interim director. Luckily, the district is blessed with two talented individuals who are fully capable of filling the position, Chris Henson and Dr. Jay Steele.
Chris Henson is the district’s well-respected Chief Financial Officer and has previously filled the position of interim director. Dr. Steele is the Chief Academic Officer, who, in this role, has helped create the career academies in our high schools, which led to recognition from no less than President Obama. School Board Chair Sharon Gentry voiced support for Henson, but when nominations were made on June 23rd, board member Jill Speering also nominated Dr. Steele. Dr. Gentry did not allow discussion, so a vote followed the nomination, and Steele was approved by a vote of 5-4. The howling immediately followed.
The next day an MNPS teacher, who, as evidenced by his tweets, watched the meeting on public access TV with sound problems, filed an ethics complaint stating there had been a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law. Nashville Scene journalist Andrea Zelinski, who regularly cover’s the education beat, also raised the specter of impropriety. The evidence seemed flimsy at best, but to a school board chair who was openly seething over being countered, it was enough. Despite the comptroller’s office not having a chance to review and respond to the ethics complaint, nor any formal vetting, Dr. Gentry called an emergency special meeting for June 30th.
At the emergency meeting this past Tuesday, things got really interesting really fast. First, Gentry is quoted as saying, “There has been an open meeting violation claim filed with relation to that so we gotta address it.” I challenge you to review the embedded video from the special meeting and share with me where she addresses the so-called ethics complaint. She doesn’t. Because the meeting is all about reversing the decision to hire Dr. Steele and replacing him with her desired candidate. If these ethics complaints were so serious that they warranted a special meeting, shouldn’t they have been the primary focus of the meeting? And after a violation was confirmed, there would have been a discussion on how to make things right?
The other omission from the meeting is that board member Dr. Jo Ann Brannon never really addresses the alleged ethics violation. There’s a vague rambling statement she makes about “taking the gamesmanship out” of the vote and a weird tale about how this relates to a previous board she was on, but never any explanation or denial of the ethics violation. So are we to assume that the allegations are true, or did someone convince her just to go ahead and change her opinion? We’ll never know because as of late, Dr. Brannon hasn’t been really accountable to her constituents. Last month, she declined to show up for a meeting on a potential zoning change for the Overton cluster of schools, which she represents, and had also bowed out of previous Overton cluster meetings.
The point is, none of this was about an ethics violation or about selecting an interim director of schools. It was all about executing a personal agenda one that includes hiring a director of schools that will facilitate the expansion of charter schools. Dr. Gentry runs the school board like it’s a vehicle for her personal whims. Proposals that align with those whims pass on, those that don’t get regulated to the back shelf. Recently when two independent studies showed that expansion of charter schools would have a negative financial impact on the district she conspired behind the scenes to produce a study that would appear to counter those findings. To secure this study she divided the cost up into two contracts that fell below the required threshold needed to secure board approval.
I first ran up against Dr. Gentry when I worked with an organization to bring Diane Ravitch to town last year. We’d secured a historic Baptist church in Nashville that had been very active in the Civil Rights movement. The church has an entire wall of pictures featuring Rep. John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., depicting their role in the fight for civil rights. It would have been a perfect opportunity to educate people on both civil rights history and current education issues.
Problem was, this was Dr. Gentry’s church and she wasn’t having it. She used her personal relationships to get the pastor to cancel use of the venue a week ahead of the event. I still remember my discussion with the pastor, where he told me that he’d been falsely informed that “Dr. Ravitch doesn’t believe all kids can learn.”
As the special meeting began, Dr. Gentry acknowledged that she’d erred by not opening up the floor for discussion at the meeting when Dr. Steele was voted in as interim director, and therefore, she helped create this fiasco. However, that doesn’t go far enough. You see, Dr. Gentry doesn’t just run board meetings based on her personal agenda, she runs them in an inept manner as well. Often absent, seldom adhering to parliamentary procedure, and rarely prepared, Dr. Gentry frequently appears to not know what she is doing. This has led to the whole search process for a new director becoming one series of blunders after another, all leading to the mess we are in now. That falls at the feet of leadership. As I discussed recent events with a local charter administrator before the special meeting, there was little we agreed upon other than the fact that board leadership was not good.
This special meeting also illuminated another elephant in the room: the integrity of the search firm, Hazard, Young and Attea, hired to secure high quality applicants for the director position. In May, they claimed that they didn’t have enough “heavy hitters” applying. Despite this, they claimed that Dr. Steele is not qualified to make the final cut. Then, when he’s made interim director, they cry foul that the board is hamstringing the process, despite their admission that they’ve never experienced an internal applicant as a candidate. Some questions started to arise in my mind about whether the search firm is attempting to shape the process to their benefit and whether they are even capable of conducting this search successfully.
At the special meeting, Dr. Gentry read a letter from Bill Attea, one of the search firm’s partners, where he attempted to lay out the challenges of this search. In doing so, he gave the impression that these were unique challenges to MNPS. But I would beg to differ.
First off, he pointed to lack of confidentiality. Once applicants turned in their paperwork, their names would become public record. Sunshine Laws are state laws and not just Nashville laws. A firm conducting a search for Memphis, Chattanooga, Cleveland, or any other district in the state would encounter the same challenge.
Secondly, he pointed to the dissension of the school board as a challenge. Really? Nashville is the only city where charter school discussions are taking place at a volatile level in school board meetings? They are not happening in Chicago? What about Celina? Hoboken, NJ? How about the Douglas County School Board, which has been one hot mess after another. The point is, school board politics are messy and whoever is hired as director better have some experience navigating those waters. To act as if this is a unique challenge is disingenuous at best.
What I’m also curious about is that it was earlier reported that once a finalist list was selected, only then would names be turned over to the board. Yet according to board member Mary Pierce’s newsletter sent out today, she states that on May 31, “Bill Attea, partner of our executive search firm, Hazard, Young and Attea, makes phone calls to individual board members to let them know that internal candidate and Chief Academic Officer, Jay Steele, would not be included on the recommended slate of candidates to be presented to our board.” Why? Why is Jay’s privacy not as valuable as other candidates’ privacy? Were other names of non-finalists revealed? Dr. Steele certainly does not need me to defend him; his record speaks for itself. But I have to question whether or not he was ever given a fair opportunity, and if not, by whose direction?
Pierce goes further in her newsletter, stating that at the special meeting, “Just before sitting down at the board table, I was made aware of rumors that a surprise motion would be made to nominate Dr. Jay Steele for interim and that he had told some staff members that he had the votes. With no discussion, this rumor proved true, but accounts of the surprise vote don’t align, and many questioned whether or not this appointment had been pre-arranged.” If Ms. Pierce had heard a “rumor” and it suddenly appeared true, then why was there no mention of it before this? Why did she not let Dr. Gentry know at the time of the nominations that discussion was required and utilize that time period to alert people of what she’d heard? Why did Ms. Pierce not raise this rumor for discussion at the special meeting about an ethics violation connected to this rumor? Because this was never about ethics in the first place.
Nothing made that clearer than the exclusion of board member Anna Shepherd from last night’s vote. Ms. Shepherd had a pre-scheduled surgery on Tuesday and couldn’t be in attendance at the meeting. She notified Dr. Gentry and begged that the meeting be moved. Dr. Gentry failed to respond because according to her metro legal had instructed board members to stay off personal email. During the special meeting, several board members appealed to the board that the meeting be moved to the following Tuesday so that Ms. Shepherd could be in attendance. Dr. Gentry refused, and the majority of the board agreed with her. Ms. Shepherd, who has been the one board member repeatedly demanding focus on the search for a new director, may not have changed the outcome, but Dr. Gentry was so focused on following her agenda that she refused to accommodate a fellow board member who had a legitimate reason for missing the meeting.
The special meeting went as scripted. Dr. Brannon called for a re-vote, and then flip-flopped her original vote with no explanation. This time, however, there was discussion before the vote. In fact, there was plenty of discussion about why Dr. Steele was a fine candidate for interim director. But there was zero discussion about why he wasn’t a good candidate. To the public, there was no discernible reason why Dr. Steele should be removed as interim. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened. Dr. Steele’s appointment was rescinded, and Mr. Henson was put in place. Dr. Gentry delivered another lecture calling on all board members to now focus on the search committee’s soon-to-be-released recommendations for a new director. But is that even possible with all the hidden agendas floating around? What’s to say the finalist’s names won’t have to be rescinded and then resubmitted? Every other action has had to be done at least twice.
The bottom line is, this has become a mess. Due to a lack of leadership, I, along with many others, have no confidence that when the list of candidates is released, we will be truly presented with the best candidates who applied for the job. Due to a mixture of incompetence and personal agendas, the integrity of this search has been compromised. I have no doubt whatsoever that Chris Henson is capable of leading this district for another year, and hopefully he is prepared for the task, because that’s what’s going to be required.
Dr. Gentry is fond on sermonizing to the board the importance of putting children first and leaving adult politics on the sideline. If these sermons at the end of board meetings truly have meaning, then the current board leadership will recuse themselves from their positions and allow for competent leaders to take the reins. Who that would be I have no idea, but any other board member would be an improvement. It’s way past time to up the professionalism level and put this school board in competent hands. If leadership can’t do it for the community, then please do it for the kids.