Way back in the days of yore, I was a communications major at Penn State University. I didn’t have much interest in production work, but communication theory really appealed to me. Agenda setting and subtle ways that narratives were established really piqued my interest. While I never did get that communications degree, I have spent much of my adult life studying the basis of communications theory.
For example, think about how you always see a picture of George W. Bush looking goofy accompanying an article about him or how Hillary Clinton always appears abrasive when a picture is run next to a story about her. These images along with the story eventually weave into a common narrative, or in some cases, a myth. Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about the power of myth in our culture. Campbell is a little extensive for my purposes here, but I certainly encourage everyone to read his work. The bottom line is that our opinions are very subtly shaped by what we read and the pictures we see, and therefore, we should be vigilant about what stories are being told and how they enter our collective conscience.
Over the past year, the city of Nashville has been engaged in a search for a new superintendent of schools for the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). The initial search ended badly and required a second attempt. This led to a lot of egg on a lot of faces. The Tennessean, Nashville’s hometown paper, has used this as further fodder to cover the MNPS school board under the lens of being dysfunctional. The newspaper has chosen to highlight the disparity and ignore the challenges. During the rare moments when they offer compliments, it’s because someone else has been included in the process or it comes with the caveat of “don’t screw this up.” This week, Opinion Engagement Editor David Plaza released another one of these critical opinion pieces.
The coverage by The Tennessean tends to reinforce two large myths. The first myth is that the board is incapable of coming to any kind of consensus opinion and the second being that the “process” (picture me giving air quotes here) trumps the results. The “process” seems to have become the most important element of the director search. In other words, that unless the “process” is strictly adhered to without any deviation by the board, we are doomed to never getting a quality candidate for director of schools. I’d argue that the board has demonstrated the ability to form a consensus and that finding a quality candidate should be the primary focus, even if it means deviating slightly from the “process”.
After the first search, which resulted in an offer being made to Dr. Mike Looney and him subsequently declining at the last minute, blame fell on the school board’s shoulders for not being to execute the process of hiring someone for the job. Subsequently, much was made of the board members’ individual differences. It’s true this board is made up of some very disparate individuals. But it should be. Nashville is a large metropolitan area. The wants and needs of my neighbors in South Nashville are very different compared to what is needed by residents in East Nashville, which is different from West Nashville. If the board was to strictly adhere to policy governance alone, the odds are somebody’s voice would be getting ignored.
In looking at the events that led up to Dr. Looney getting the offer from the board, I don’t see how the results could be tied to their disparate views. In fact, they came together and voted 8-1 to offer him the job. He came out of a pool with at least two high quality candidates that were selected by the hired recruitment firm. Obviously some people were able to compromise in order to come together for the greater good – and rather quickly as well. There are no stories of the board being locked in a room battling out the choices with neither side willing to give in. In fact, it was the opposite. They entered a room together and within minutes were able to come to a consensus. Unfortunately, things did not go as they planned.
Now, it’s not their fault that Dr. Looney decided to remain with Williamson County. One look at his school board there and you can pretty much rule out the fear of working with a dysfunctional school board. Lately, Dr. Looney, for whatever reason, has decided to share some perceived improprieties, but were these really deal breakers? I don’t think so. The truth is, the board created a process, followed the blueprint, arrived at the best candidate, and made an offer. By the way, Dr. Looney was named Tennessee Superintendent of the Year this summer, so I would count that as evidence of him being a high quality candidate. It’s not like they were settling. Had he chosen to accept the position it would have been a good hire.
Why Dr. Looney changed his mind will forever be between him and his God, and that is certainly his prerogative. The bottom line is he exercised his free choice after the board had arrived at a collective decision. If I offer to sell you a car and you choose to remain with the one you are already driving, how is that indicative of a shortcoming of mine? Could the process have been a little less messy? Sure. Would it have arrived at a different out come? Doubtful. We are just such a process and blame- centric society that we can’t accept that the reason for failure could be anything but failure to adhere to the process. Well, guess what? Sometimes shit just happens. (I promise I’ll clean up my language going forward.)
That brings us to the second myth that gets under my skin: whereas the process is so absolute and pure, (which is a blog post for another day) that as long as it is adhered to, nothing bad can happen. I could not disagree more. The process should be an outline. It should be fluid. If there is a portion of the process that seems to be underserving, we should be able to evaluate and adjust without the perception that the whole process is being undermined. If the process can’t withstand the slightest challenge, is it really the best process? The process should never take precedence over the results. I actually believe that continually challenging the process and the candidates will result in a stronger candidate. The outcome will be someone we know can survive challenges and somebody we know really wants to be here.
It’s in this light that I wonder why David Plazas felt it necessary to attack Ms. Frogge for proposing a candidate that seemed to fill a void underserved by the “process”. This second time around, a new search firm, Jim Huge and Associates, conducted a search and put forth a list of six male candidates for the Nashville superintendent position. The glaring omission was that there were no women included in the finalist list. But there was mention, from outside parties, of a woman who was at least as qualified, if not more qualified, as the finalists put forth by the search firm. And she was interested in the position. So I ask, why was Plazas’ headline, “School board member Amy Frogge nearly torpedoed the process on May 5” instead of “Frogge refuses to leave any stone unturned in search for new director”? Are we committed to finding the best person for the job or to validating the created process? A process that itself is untested. We have no idea if this process will produce the best candidate or not. So why the rigid adherence? Why is raising questions – which is evidence of critical thinking, a quality we praise our students for – looked upon so negatively by other board members and members of the press?
Another key point to keep in mind, is that if you go back and review previous school board meetings you will see that Ms. Frogge only agreed to the process based on the tenet that only the board will choose the finalists. That’s clearly not what happened. In fact not only did the board not select the finalists, the search firm did possibly with the help of Nashville Public Education Fundation. Truth is, counter to the way the process was drawn up, the board never even saw the list of candidates. Which gives us this conundrum where Mr. Plaza is taking Ms. Frogge to task for undermining the process when the process has already been undermined by other parties. It’s a bit of a head scratcher. An argument could be made that Ms. Frogge was adhering to the “process”.
Ezra Howard, a fellow blogger, teacher and wise soul from Memphis, pointed out to me this weekend that no matter what, the selected candidate still has to prove themselves going forward. I think we all need to remind ourselves of that. No matter how closely the process is adhered to, there is still no guarantee of success. That’s always a hard one for us to wrap our head around. There’s a saying in sports that winning cures everything. That probably holds true here as well. If the pick becomes successful, the narrative will sing the accolades of the “process”. If not, then school board members will be damned because their inability to adhere to the “process” doomed things. The reality is, it’s all a crap shoot and the more information gathered, the more likely a successful candidate will be chosen.
Invariably a new director of schools will be hired, and a call will go out for everybody to get behind the new director and help him succeed. I don’t understand why the same hand is not extended to the board. Why are we constantly being barraged with the narrative of them being dysfunctional? Why don’t we have faith that they are coming at things with the best intentions instead of assuming the opposite? I suspect it has to do with the desire to make school boards appear incompetent at every turn. After all, it’s hard to dismantle a public school system when there are competent hands at the wheel. It will always be my assertion that public schools are the front lines of a democracy and having them controlled by an elected board is essential to protecting that role in our society.
I do think that the MNPS board could protect each other a little more. To her credit, board member Jill Speering posted on her Facebook page superintendent candidate Shawn Joseph’s comments about Amy Frogge’s comments. “I commend them for putting it on the table,” Dr. Joseph says in an interview with Amanda Haggard. If he has no problem with, why should other board members and the Tennessean? All of these board members are very good at getting quotes in the paper as they relate to their agendas. What if they used that skill to defend each other’s right to speak instead of allowing their silence to reinforce the narrative of dysfunction?
The truth is, the school board here in Nashville has done a worthy job of conducting this search. They’ve come together, laid out a process, and followed the process while allowing room for dissent when parties felt it necessary. They’ve reached a consensus pick the first time around, and I’m confident that at the end of this week we’ll have another consensus pick. Has it been problem free? No. Is there a chance it will fail again? Absolutely. But if it does, I’m confident we’ll pick right up again and take another swing at it. The important thing is not getting the job done painlessly, but rather, in getting it done right. It’d be nice if others would recognize that and reinforce that narrative instead of outsiders and journalists being intent on tearing apart the board for doing their job – even if their job means that they will often disagree as they work toward what is best for our large urban school district.
One of the points that these journalists or outsiders miss in criticizing the school board for disagreeing so often is this: it is their job to raise questions and have serious discussions that include all sides of an issue. The board members were each elected in their own right, and they all are on the board to serve our community as a whole. There is nothing in their job description that says they need to agree all the time, but they do need to work toward consensus on what is best for our children – that is their job. And they have done so.
Questioning the process of how they are going to hire the next director of schools – which is one of their most important job duties – should be something that is expected, especially after the first go round with Dr. Looney. All parts of the process should be questioned, investigated, and asked again to the satisfaction of the whole board. Questions like Who is this search firm? What is their experience? What pool of people are they drawing from? How were they selected? Who was on the original list of applicants? Why were applicants taken out of consideration? How were these candidates selected? Why did the director of the search firm cry when announcing this list of 6 candidates – does that speak to the level of inexperience of the firm? I honestly can’t believe people are taking our board members to task for asking questions – especially a JOURNALIST like Plazas. Truth is, I would be more bothered if no one were asking questions at all. A free press is another pillar of our democratic society and it’s a role we can’t leave unfilled.