I think Diane Ravitch said it best last week: “Nashville, you have a problem.” In case you are new to the game, back in July, Nashville got a new Director of Schools, and while there was a sigh of relief that he wasn’t of the reformer ilk, he’s raised plenty of other red flags since he started work here. This past week, even more started to pop up.
Either due to my last blog post or independently, Phil Williams, an investigative local journalist with Channel 5 News, has begun asking many of the same questions that I have been asking. In an attempt to preempt the potential damage, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) released a series of communications. The first was under the guise of a “fact checking” sheet. Everybody loves a fact checker these days, but the problem is, this one didn’t counter any facts. Instead, it confirmed that the Chiefs were driving luxury vehicles and commanding much larger salaries than last year. Salaries that were not designated in the budget that was approved just a few months ago. Here’s another hint: justifications that involve how special you are as opposed to everybody else will usually fall on deaf ears.
What this “fact check” does is try to move the conversation away from whether administrators are receiving these benefits and instead make an argument that it is justified. My argument is, where did the money come from? In the recently approved budget, neither English Learner programs nor literacy programs were fully funded. Yet somehow we’ve magically found money to raise administrator’s salaries by $20,000 or more in one fell swoop. More than that, we’ve dramatically grown central office despite the school board demanding for the last several years that we shrink central office.
Here’s what the previous organizational chart looked like from September 2015:
Here’s what a new one looks like from August 2016:
In looking at the two charts, I don’t see a lot of shrinkage happening. In fact the opposite of what the board has been calling for seems to be happening. I’m not arguing for justification, and shrinking central office may have been the wrong directive, but where is the money coming from? And why is it necessary to pull people from outside of the district to fill these new positions? Did we have nobody competent enough who was working previously in Nashville? Because that’s the impression being given. It seems like no one in Nashville is good enough, and that is ridiculous considering that there was some exceptional work taking place before Joseph was hired. Pre-K, the Academies, English Language instruction, budget presentation, all were winning national accolades that are now going unrecognized by the current administration.
Again, I get the potential need to increase salaries and hire more staff, but it’s just like my son and his collection of wrestling figures. He’s crazy about the WWE and all their wrestling figures right now and wants every single one of them this instant. Unfortunately, my budget does not allow for me to go out and purchase every single wrestling figure this month. Despite the fact that they would make him happy, and there is no doubt he would utilize each one of those figures daily, I have a budget I have to adhere to. I can choose to buy a couple this week, maybe one next week, skip a week, and so on. There maybe a little wiggle room here and there where I could pick up an extra one, but otherwise I have to secure these for him over time. And that’s assuming that I determine this is something he needs. Our staffing and salary growth should be no different. We should assess, establish priorities, and then acquire. It’s how families all over America do it everyday.
The second part of that fact checking sheet outlines comparisons in salaries, and it is next to useless. Many of us have sold a house, so we know how the “comps” game works. You want to sell your house for 20% more than it’s really worth, so you go out and hunt for properties like yours that sold for the value or greater that you want to sell your home. The buyer will counter with ones that are lower, and somewhere in between is the true value. We could endlessly go back and forth finding districts and salaries that make each of our arguments, but in the end, even if it’s proven that these salaries should be raised, where is the money coming from?
One of the answers I’ve heard and that’s being floated around is that there was a lot of waste in the previous Director of Schools Dr. Register’s budget and that Chief Financial Officer Chris Henson has been able to find it and repurpose it. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Except that Dr. Register has been gone since the spring of 2015, and Chris Henson was the acting director for 2015-2016. So why was this waste not found prior to this current budget? Why did we take a budget to the City Council last year that was so filled with fat that the current administration can find enough surplus to fund extra positions in central office, new consultants, trips to Chattanooga and Salt Lake City, and substantial raises for executive team members? If it’s the Director’s job to execute the desire of the School Board, and the current approved budget is a representation of that desire, why is it being arbitrarily changed a few months later? If there were initiatives (i.e., literacy and English Language Learners) that were not fully funded last year, shouldn’t the newly identified money be directed towards those initiatives since the Board has already them as priorities? Lastly, are there things that could have a more direct impact on children’s learning that could use the funding instead of training that teaches adults how to act towards each other?
Well, funny you should ask that last one. Teachers have been complaining since the beginning of the school year about their inability to make enough copies of learning materials for their students. Apparently Dr. Joseph never heard these complaints, or chose to ignore them, because he stopped sending his newsletter via email only and switched to a full-color, four-page printout. Meanwhile, our children don’t have the resources they need to learn because there’s no money for teachers to have copy paper and toner. His argument was that nobody was reading it electronically, so he had to distribute it the old-fashioned way. I wonder if that’s increased readership any. I’ve got my suspicions considering that I can’t find one teacher who can tell me if this newsletter comes out weekly, biweekly, or monthly. My suggestion would be to either put “Dad Gone Wild” on top of the newsletters or become sensitive to teacher’s schedules and release the newsletter at a time that works for them. Or better yet, condense it all into a Monday morning email for the upcoming week and leave it at that. But please stop wasting precious resources that our teachers and students really need.
The first “fact check” sheet was soon followed up by a memo suspending travel for all district employees unless approved by a Chief. The timing of this was particularly disconcerting as it came on the heels of the school board’s recent board retreat to Chattanooga and an Arbinger Institute training in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to the director and the Chair of the School Board the “culture” of the district is our primary issue and not schools that look like this.
At any rate, Arbinger training does not come cheap. Figure about $3k per person plus hotel, flight, and meals. That doesn’t even take into account the cost of how it appears to other employees of the district. It’s been my experience that workers don’t enjoy having limitations placed on them while leaders enjoy the perks. It doesn’t really make things conducive for a healthy culture.
Since we are addressing culture, and Dr. Joseph has used the Arbinger Institute previously in other districts, let’s take a look at the culture where he’s come from most recently, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PCGPS) in Maryland. It turns out that might not be such a great idea. You see, currently PGCPS is embroiled in a little bit of a controversy. Seems like they’ve lost their $6.5 million Head Start federal grant over their handling of a child mistreatment claim. It doesn’t appear that it’s an isolated incident either. Reports say they currently have 124 teachers on disciplinary leave due to child treatment issues. A long term Chief of Staff recently resigned amid calls for the Superintendent’s resignation as some people allege a cover up. The culture in PGCPS has even drawn the eye of the Governor. Wonder what day all this is covered in the Arbinger training? Some may claim that MNPS has had culture issues but I don’t believe that one of the symptoms ever involved how children were treated.
Things are currently blowing up in PGCPS, but the events in question occurred last year when Dr. Shawn Joseph, Dr. Monique Felder, and Dr. Sito Narcisse all held positions of leadership in PGCPS. Let’s be clear here – nobody is accusing them of nefarious behavior. Joseph was cleared of any wrong doing, though it is a little disconcerting that he oversaw the department in charge of the Head Start program, and one of the emails that led to the dismissal of the PGCPS Chief of Staff is addressed to him. We need to further keep an eye on these events for two reasons. First, because as the investigation unfolds, it has been moving away from a single incident into being an indictment of the culture within PGCPS. If we are going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating a new culture within MNPS, I would argue that it is financially prudent to make a close examination of the culture that we are importing to ensure that we are, in fact, morphing into a healthier culture.
Secondly, this is an ongoing investigation involving several different local, state, and federal agencies, and we have recently employed a whole lot of personnel from Prince George’s County Public Schools. I’m not saying any of them have done anything wrong and I’m sure all have been thoroughly vetted, but that employment train should probably be halted until after the investigations are completed. PGCPS is not the only home to quality employees, and perhaps we should use this opportunity to take a closer look at talented staff already in our system. An inventory that should have been done from the start.
In order to have a healthy organization – Dr. Joseph has previously referenced MNPS as a “sick” organization – it is important to engage in healthy dialogue, but it doesn’t appear that Dr. Joseph is looking to foster a whole lot of dialogue. On Friday of last week, district employees got a three-page memo on how conversations with School Board members need to work. What this means is if you are a little concerned about the spending and the hiring and you want to talk to the people in your district that you know and trust the most – teachers, principals, and school board members – then you better follow this protocol to a tee. If you think you can just invite a school board member to visit your classroom, think again.
I understand the need to control the message, but this is Nashville. We are used to unfettered access to everyone. We shop and chat with Garth Brooks at the local Target. We attend kid’s soccer games with supermodels. The last time I was at Parnassus Books, I ran into Mayor Megan Barry, and she said hello to me before I noticed her. That’s just how we roll here in Nashville. It’s part of what makes us special. As newcomers, it’s always good to study how the natives communicate before dictating to them how they need to do it.
Here’s where I’m going to take you back to May of this year, when the search for a Director was racing towards the finish line. The push to get a new Director of Schools in place was at a fever pitch. Nashville Public Education Foundation, the Mayor’s office, and other outside organizations were putting an immense amount of pressure on the School Board to have a sense of unity in order to get the job done. This was the second search, as the first one didn’t go so well, and The Tennessean was instructing board members not to screw it up. The mere mention of adding a candidate outside of those brought forth by the search team was met with such derision that others could be forgiven for not raising any concerns. The impetus was on getting the job done, not done right, and I suspect we are now paying for that.
Almost immediately in the contract negotiations once he was hired, Dr. Joseph asked for the following clause to be added:
The board, individually and collectively, shall promptly refer to the Director, orally or in writing, for his study and recommendation any and all criticisms, complaints, suggestions, communications, or other comments regarding the Directors performance of his duties of the operation of the MNPS. Individual Board members agree that they will not give direction to the Director or any employee of MNPS regarding the management of the District or the solution of specific problems and that they shall refer all personnel complaints or other communications concerning the administration of MNPS to the Director for investigation and report to the Board. The Director shall share with the Board, where and whenever possible and as appropriate, criticisms, complaints, and suggestions concerning the MNPS that may come to his attention.
Now I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but to my eyes, that clause effectively neuters the School Board. Question about the budget? Write me a note, and I’ll get back when I can. Questions about who we’ve hired from Prince George’s County? You know the drill, and don’t push me too hard or you’ll get even less information. I firmly believe that due to outside pressures and the leverage of an upcoming election, the School Board was maneuvered into a position where they now have limited ability to provide oversight on the Director’s actions. As Diane Ravitch said, “Nashville, you have a problem.”
In Section 16 of Dr. Joseph’s contract, under Objectives and Evaluation, it does say the following:
In consultation and cooperation with Dr. Joseph, the Board shall determine the goals and objectives of the MNPS. At the end of the school year, the Board and Dr. Joseph shall evaluate the MNPS activities and accomplishments in light of those goals and objectives.
I bet more than one teacher is wishing they had that built into their contract. In essence, the Director and his team are being evaluated on the goals and objectives they “help” create. What if the Board and the Director don’t agree on those objectives and goals? Who gets the final say? What if they are extremely dissatisfied with the performance of a member of his team and want a change? As I see it, their hands are tied. To make things even better we are bringing in another outside consulting firm, Panasonic Foundation, to help design the evaluation process. And who recommended Panasonic Foundation? Wait for it…Dr. Joseph.
As a tax payer, this scares me, especially when you look at Dr. Joseph’s last two stops, the Seaford School District in Delaware and Prince George’s County, and now, where he says things like, “We don’t want to ask the public for new dollars until we know the old dollars are being used effectively.” If I was a weatherman, I would say a tax front is moving in. I will offer this bit of advice: here in Tennessee, we ain’t so fond of tax increases. People will not be receptive of increased taxes to fund high executive salaries, fancy cars, and cross country junkets.
I can’t wait to see the next “fact check” sheet from MNPS. It’ll probably explain why those tax increases are necessary, and once again exonerate Dr. Joseph and his cadre of any implication in the ongoing PGCPS scandal. I have to admit the irony is not lost on me. I have spent the last several years fighting off the privatization movement and now I’m left to watch my beloved school system be devoured from the inside. What’s the difference between a private board that is not accountable to the public and a director of schools who is only marginally accountable to an elected board? What is the difference between a non-disclosed budget and one that is arbitrarily altered through out the year? What’s the difference between a private entity that rewards executives over teachers and a public entity that does the same? I don’t know the answers, but unfortunately I think I am about to find out.