Imagine, if you will, the following. It’s about a month before the local school board election and ten or so principals are hunkered over keyboards in their offices. They are hammering away at emails, cooking up plans to sway the election in a way that is beneficial to them. The plans involve utilizing rich donors and school resources. If they can get the right people elected, it would provide an advantage for their schools.
If the public got wind of this, I imagine they’d be pretty upset about it. Not to mention the legality of their schemes. Well, in Nashville, we don’t have to imagine because apparently it’s happening. Only it’s not public school principals, it’s the heads of local charters and lobbyist groups doing the scheming, according to these emails.
Pretty interesting correspondence here, if you ask me. But before we go any further, let’s go to the address line and identify the players. The sender of this email is none other than the esteemed Dan O’Donnell, Nashville City Director for Stand For Children. You’ll remember I told you about O’Donnell and SFC last week. Seems like he’s been really busy this year.
This email is addressed to the following people: Bill DeLoache, a wealthy charter school backer who sits on the board of the Tennessee Charter School Center and Project Renaissance; Brent Easley, the Tennessee Director of StudentsFirst; Marsha Edwards, President and CEO of the Martha O’Bryan Center, East End Prep, and Explorer Community School; Shaka Mitchell, Regional Director of Rocketship Education in Tennessee; Ravi Gupta, CEO of RePublic Schools; Charles Friedman, head of Nashville Classical Charter School; Todd Dickson, CEO at Valor Collegiate Academy; John Eason, a philanthropist with an interest in charter schools [interesting side note: In 1992, Eason and DeLoache tried and failed to create a magnet school in Nashville focused on international studies. Interestingly enough, they formed a company and took over the Turner School in Pittsburgh, and reading its history is like reading the blueprint for future charter schools: limited success, high turnover, and half-fulfilled promises.]; Alan Coverstone, currently a professor at Belmont University; Ben Schumacher, the newly-named Executive Director for Teach For America-Greater Nashville; Randy Dowell is Executive Director for KIPP Nashville Charter Schools; and Shani Dowell, former Executive Director of Teach For America-Nashville and now with the Relay Graduate School of Education.
There are a number of red flags that need to be thrown on the contents of this email. Both Todd Dickson and Shani Dowell were recently named to newly-hired MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph’s transition team. Yet here they are, copied on an email that proposes taking advantage of the incumbents being away on a board retreat. It should be noted that retreat was to lay the groundwork for the upcoming transition. So how does that work? By day, you help ease the new administration into place and by night, you plot to manipulate the school board race to your cadre’s benefit? I would say that’s a bit of a conflict of interest, no? Both should be recused from the transition team as these emails make it clear that they do not offer an unbiased view.
This email also confirms some things that we’ve known all along but charter schools were able to convince the general public that it was just conspiracy talk. Charter schools like to say they are public schools, but the reality is that they’ve never shown any inkling to work within the school system. Any attempt to bring oversight is always met with defense and push back. These emails openly confirm that they collaborate behind the scenes to rig the system to benefit themselves. There is little interest in building anything past their individual success stories.
In reading this email, one of the most maddening traits of the charter crowd is revealed, the ability to talk out of both sides of their mouths. Out of one side of their mouth, the charter people talk about the value of parent voice, yet out of the other side they bemoan that school board incumbent Amy Frogge has an “army of moms out there.” Excuse me if I missed a memo, but I thought that was the goal. And if Frogge can mount an army of moms in support of her, well, parents know best, so perhaps Stand For Children and friends should be supporting her. Instead, the cadre is trying to raise an army made up of employees and paid canvassers for a opposing candidate. One that is willing to ignore that “army of moms” to promote Stands positions. You know, since they can’t get more than the same old 12 people to knock on doors.
Which brings up another point. Charter folks are always talking about the demand for charter schools and how parents are voting with their feet, yet they can only get the same dozen people to get out and support their candidates. That kinda speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Especially since they also admit that Jill Speering has MNEA volunteers out in force. So of course privateers do what they always do, break out the checkbook and try to convince us that reality isn’t what we see.
I can’t help but reflect back on the case involving Williamson Strong from last year. If you’ll remember, WS is the parent group that was found to be operating an illegal PAC despite the fact that they never solicited any money from anyone nor ever gave any money to anyone. I would think the behaviors discussed here, of which an actual monetary figure could be attached, certainly meet the criteria for running an illegal PAC. There are identified candidates, explicit contact information, and a call to action. The call to action, at minimum, requires an in kind donation. Though I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, it seems pretty cut and dried to me. It’ll be interesting to see if this gets pursued as relentlessly as the WS case was pursued. Maybe not, since there are no actual parent voices involved.
The real question of legality, though, comes in a follow up email from Marsha Edwards, President and CEO of the Martha O’Bryan Center and the two charter schools run by the center. As Nate Rau reports in The Tennessean, the Martha O’Bryan Center is “headquartered among the James A. Cayce Homes, a government housing development in East Nashville,” and “was founded in 1951 to combat poverty issues. The center helps families with rent payments and utility bills, and runs employment and tutoring programs.” Six years ago they got into the business of charter schools.
Edwards, at the behest of Stand For Children’s Dan O’Donnell, puts out a call to action to all Center employees for paid canvassers. She also lists what candidates are “in play.” Edwards defends her actions telling The Tennesean, “the center was not providing direct or indirect support to the campaigns, which tax law forbids, but instead passing along a job opportunity to ‘students in our programs and employees.’” Wow, I had no idea that the CEO of a non-profit and two schools also had the task of running a job board for its employees and students. She goes on to say, “The email that was forwarded was a paid job opportunity that we passed along to students in our programs and employees within our organization… Our employees, like the employees of any private organization (nonprofit or otherwise), are absolutely free to engage in political activity on their own time. And, we cannot see that there should be any concern in our sharing opportunities for political or civic engagement, which is all that occurred in this instance.”
I’m assuming she also reached out to incumbents Will Pinkston, Jill Speering, and Amy Frogge offering her assistance , but probably not. There is also the fact that there are several million dollars at stake in the school board race. Martha O’Bryan is currently the 4th largest charter school in MNPS and despite being recently denied their bid to take over Napier ES, has big plans to grow in the future. Plans that won’t come to fruition without the right kind of school board member. And as Ms. Edwards points out, Ms. Meenely is already working as an event consultant on an event they are planning. Passing along a job prospect or not, the reality is that federal tax law strictly forbids non-profits like the Martha O’Bryan Center from getting involved, directly or indirectly, in elections. It is not a stretch to find Edwards in violation of federal tax law in this instance.
These emails confirm what Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering, along with board member Anna Shepherd, have been saying for a long time. They serve as authentication for statements Ms. Frogge made before the board on April 23, 2014. A month earlier Will Pinkston had offered similar warnings. At that time, as it happened every time the issues were raised, they were met with ridicule and ignored by The Tennessean and others. I don’t mind saying it, I think The Tennessean owes the board an apology. In reading these emails, it becomes clear that the people included in these emails do not have a “Hey guys, can you help me out here” relationship, but rather one of long standing collaboration where everybody knows everybody and shares common goals. The emails reek of familiarity. A familiarity that the Tennessean has ignored and Dan O’Donnell is exploiting through Stand For Children in order to create a board that will be more sympathetic to their agenda.
The bottom line is that Stand For Children has been driving a very specific agenda here in town. One that is financially beneficial to them. I often hear people refer affectionately back to the days when Francie Hunt ran the organization and they focused on things like expanded pre-K and other student-centered issues. Let’s be clear,this is not the same organization. This is a purely highly-monetized political entity. One that works its agenda while disregarding the desires of teachers, parents, and the community members it purports to stand for. Keep in mind as well that, as noted above, both DeLoache and Eason both have a history with running a for profit charter schools. I don’t believe that, with the amount of money being spent, its too far a stretch to think they wouldn’t like to revive that business model.
Education reformers always like to say we need to put the needs of children before adults. Unfortunately, as demonstrated here, their actions do not match their words. Furthermore their actions demonstrate that they are willing to ignore an army of mothers in order to create an environments more genial towards them. They are willing to fund over a hundred thousand dollars on a candidate with a highly questionable past just to try and take a board member that opposes them off the battle field. They are willing to state in an interview that they would not say anything negative towards an incumbent out of respect and then turn around and target her district with fliers that make her appear unresponsive to constituents. They are willing to issue a public letter to try and intimidate another candidate into apologizing for an action she never committed knowing that if said candidate did, it would be a violation of campaign finance law. It has to stop. But it will only stop if the public makes them accountable.
Early voting has started. Election day is August 4. Please go vote and make Dan O’Donell , Stand For Children, Teach for America, Students First, Bill DeLoache, Ravi Grupta, Todd Dickson, Randy Dowell, Shani Dowell, Shaka Mitchell, John Eason, Alan Coverstone, and Marsha Edwards understand that we take democracy pretty serious in Nashville. We don’t like people trying to manipulate the democratic process. The Martha O’Bryan violations are the most obvious but now that we’ve begun turning over rocks, who knows what we’ll find.
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