When I was a kid, we had a game we liked to play. You’d take a brown paper lunch bag, fill it with dog poop, place it on some unsuspecting person’s porch, light it on fire, ring the doorbell, and then run. The unsuspecting person would answer the door, see the flaming bag, and quickly move to stamp it out. You can guess the rest. Essentially, that’s the game Dr. Mike Looney played with Nashville last week.
Over the last several months, the Metropolitan Nashville Public School System (MNPS) has engaged in a search for a new director of schools. It’s been an extremely difficult search process and one fraught with a plethora of challenges. The slate of candidates brought forth by the search firm Hazard, Young, and Attea left many unimpressed. School board chair Sharon Gentry played personal politics by utilizing an ethics complaint to overturn a vote on an interim director while never actually addressing the ethics complaint and also ignoring two other ethics complaints. Through some kind of miracle, though, once the process moved on to actual interviews, a path forward started to emerge.
First of all, Dr. Angela Huff, the candidate from Cobb County, Georgia, proved to be much more impressive than she looked on paper. However, Dr. Looney, the current superintendent of Williamson County Schools, proceeded to demonstrate why the people of Williamson County love him. This is where the paper bag got lit up.
In these interviews and through personal interviews with individual board members and community members, Dr. Looney began to construct a grand vision of what MNPS could look like under his leadership. It was a vision that could unite all elements within a community that often found itself at odds. So much so that he was able to generate a vote of 8-1 from the school board to offer him the position. The lone holdout being Tyese Hunter.
Hunter supported Dr. Huff and had concerns that another finalist, Dr. Covington, had been disqualified, in her opinion, due to internet rumors. She also felt we weren’t holding Dr. Looney to the same level of scrutiny. It’s a position that I disagree with, as the evidence on Dr. Covington was pretty overwhelming, and the charge against Dr. Looney was one that had been proven false, but in hindsight, perhaps we should have paid it more heed. However, the reviews of Dr. Looney were so glowing, the feedback so positive, and the desire for optimism so strong, that people started to buy the hype.
That’s when the bag got stomped on. Looney elected to stay in Williamson County despite having signed a letter of intent to come to MNPS, and with that, debris started to fly. The fallout was instantaneous. In declining the MNPS job and selecting the Williamson County job, Looney cited reasons that ran directly counter to things he said to me just two days earlier over lunch. It’s extremely disheartening because this world is so devoid of people with true integrity, and I left that lunch feeling like I’d met one. Today, however, I am unsure. I look forward to hearing a more detailed explanation from Dr. Looney about his decision.
It’s important to understand that Dr. Looney was not pursued by MNPS. In fact, several school board members tried to dissuade him from applying. Once he became a finalist many thought this was all a ploy to get more money from Williamson County and neutralize his political enemies, a charge a vehemently denied . Watching him navigate the interview process, though, was a textbook case on how to win over votes. It was clear that he had done his homework, and he managed to turn that into talking points that appealed to each board member. It was impressive and it was successful.
It’s hard to reconcile that kind of calculation with a sudden change of heart due to an outpouring of emotion from Williamson County. After all, the ones begging him to stay were the ones who had always begged him to stay. Nobody really changed their mind because of this charade. His supporters just got a louder voice. It’ll be interesting to see in the coming year if those detractors don’t regain their volume.
In declining the job, Dr. Looney talked about it being a family decision and the need to do right by his family. This argument is indicative of a larger problem in public education. It’s a position that says my family and my child trump all else. If my child’s individual needs are being met, then all is good. Dr. Looney sold Nashville on the belief that he had a set of skills that could, in his words, move the needle for all our students. He talked of the potential of creating a public education system that could be a national model. One that showed how all types of schools – traditional, charter, and magnet – could interact together. In the end, though, it’s his family and his children’s needs that he chose to address, leaving the others to look for hope elsewhere.
Can he be faulted for that? That’s not my judgment to make. All I can do is compare it to my personal situation. Both of my children are in a high poverty school. The instruction is excellent, but the inequalities children in these schools face have been mind numbing. Often I consider pulling them out and putting them in a school that provides every opportunity. We have the means to do so. The problem is, that won’t end the inequality. True, my children would be in a better situation, but those other children would still be under served. My children would also suffer from the lack of exposure to children who are different from them. And that’s why I stay and advocate. Because my children won’t live in a world by themselves, and it’s important that they learn early on that all people are important, not just us.
The burning bag is going to spray everywhere for a while. It’s already hit the school board. The Tennessean didn’t even wait a day to jump in with an editorial blaming the school board for the rejection. Choosing instead to try and push the paper’s agenda instead of taking a moment to acknowledge the hard work of the board, whose members sacrificed personal time away from their families to make the process as transparent as possible to the general public. The newspaper chose to once again take a shot at the board’s initial vote to instill chief academic officer Jay Steele over current interim director Chris Henson, claiming that Gentry’s actions were justified. But I think there may be some rethinking of that position once test scores are released this week. Nowhere did the paper acknowledge that despite all the turmoil, the board had come together and made the right choice.
Instead they chose to chide the board by saying they need to “grow up” and leave behind their petty arguments. It’s insulting to label legitimate discourse as “petty.” I don’t understand why people fail to grasp the concept that democracy consists of people with disparate views coming together and finding a common solution. Nowhere is it written that we can’t disagree in getting to the solution. I helped to elect my school board representative to defend the right of public education for our communities children, not to make new friends.
We claim to want to teach children critical thinking skills, but chastise the board when they model those very skills. As observed by Dr. Looney, the topics of our board are focused around children and the delivery system of their education. He advised that Williamson County’s board could learn from this. The Tennessean editorial chose to ignore this observation and went further by making the declaration that our board wasn’t ready for a director like Dr. Looney, but he was a good fit for Williamson County.
The African-American community is pushing for an offer to be made to the runner-up candidate, Dr. Angela Huff. That would be a mistake. There was a reason she was not the first choice, and we need to remember history and not rush off to instantly hire someone. The last time we did that, we paid dearly for it and almost ended up with a state takeover of Nashville’s public schools. Their voices need to be heard and their concerns recognized, but the process needs to be restarted entirely. A new search firm needs to be hired. Dr. Huff should be encouraged to resubmit her application. If she truly is the best candidate, she will rise to the top again.
Dr. Looney’s decision to stay in Williamson County also robs the Nashville community of the ability to buy-in to a new director 100 percent. He very calculatingly created an air of excitement in MNPS. People who had given up on public education were suddenly ready to give MNPS a second look. But that won’t happen again. We’ll get a great director, but he or she is going to be greeted with a little skepticism, because after all, we got dressed up once already and watched the carriage drive away without us. We won’t be so trusting a second time.
During the courtship of Dr. Looney, a comment was made to me that the problem with Williamson County was their sense of entitlement to the things they wanted. This episode reinforced that. If Dr. Looney had left, Williamson County Schools would have been just fine. They have the demographics and the resources to always provide a world-class education system. A large urban district doesn’t have that luxury. Once again, this is an example of the rich getting richer. As a child of poverty, how does Dr. Looney rectify that with his life experiences? With MNPS Dr. Looney would have had a chance to really make a name for himself, change the trajectory of children’s lives, and demonstrate true transformational leadership on the national stage. I doubt he will ever have that opportunity again.
Time will tell where else the splatter goes. Ultimately, though, it’s the children of MNPS who will suffer. This will be a year spent in a holding pattern. Which is a shame because children don’t get another senior year in high school or another 4th grade year. They get one shot at that experience, and we as adults, by failing to keep that in mind, have made this coming year more difficult from the start. Fortunately, we are blessed to have some of the best teachers and administrators in the country to lean on. I have complete faith that they will guide our children through all the turmoil to a place of not just maintaining, but excelling. We need to make sure that we don’t take them for granted either. We need to do everything we can to support them.
I left my lunch with Dr. Looney last week extremely impressed. I thought to myself, here is a man so comfortable with himself that he is open to discuss anything. No subject is off limits because he knows his brand and he lives his brand. Well, this week that brand took a hit. It’ll be interesting to see this year how things play out and if Dr. Looney truly neutralized his detractors or if they are going use this drama as fuel to come back harder then ever.
The strange thing is, that even after all of this heartbreak, I still want to believe. I still want to have faith in the things he said. As cynical as I can be, I truly want to believe that all of this is about children and communities. We need people of integrity. We don’t need more heroes with clay feet. Time will tell whether this was a brilliant ploy or a dumpster fire. Hopefully Dr. Looney will do the children of Williamson County a better service than he’s done the children of Davidson County. Right now though we’ve got some heroes in Nashville that need our help. So lets rolls up our sleeves and bring on the new school year. We have some work to do.