Whew… it’s a good thing that the Chamber of Commerce Report Card comes out next week and not this week. (Yea… I messed up the dates.) Enough has already happened this week to compel me to write a mid-week special edition. Strap yourself in and let’s take a look at this week’s events that could impact public education in Nashville.
Lets’s start with yesterday’s MNPS school board meeting. On the consent agenda was QuaverMusic.com. Quaver is an integral part of MNPS’s Music Makes Us Program and was initially on the agenda for the last meeting in November before being mysteriously pulled at the last minute. This action put a 1.25 million dollar grant in jeopardy. Board member Mary Pierce attempted to get clarification at that meeting and was told that it was a “question of capacity” and that on December 12th the board would get more information.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The Vice-President at Quaver Music is Alice Rolli. Rolli was on the founding board of Teach for America and was a big supporter of Jackson Miller for the last school board election. Now for the TMZ portion of the program. Word on the street is that Rolli approached a board member at a function to express her excitement about the pending project. The board member’s reaction was not what she expected, but it should have been. Let’s just say if our children acted in a similar manner towards someone, we would rebuke them. Shortly thereafter, Quaver was removed from the consent agenda of the November 28th meeting over “capacity issues.”
Last night, Quaver passed the consent agenda as those “capacity issues” had apparently been alleviated. Unfortunately, not all board members were in attendance for last night’s vote, so we’ll never know if everyone’s concerns were alleviated. I would really hate to think that programs that are good for kids are being put at risk purely for political reasons. For now though, we’ll just have to give the benefit of the doubt.
Last week, we reported that the Executive Officer of STEAM Bob Blankenship had returned from administrative leave. If you’ll remember, Blankenship replaced Kris Elliot at the beginning of the year, but had been on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons since early October. Elliot is now at Oregon State University leading their outdoor education program. He was highly respected by his peers while at MNPS.
Blankenship was also highly respected in MNPS and few could understand what actions he might have committed that would lead to him being placed on administrative leave. On Tuesday, it was revealed that an internal investigation had found that Blankenship did touch a subordinate’s arm “in a manner that was unwelcome.” Furthermore, the investigation also found that he’d engaged in a “conversation on a subject that was inappropriate and demonstrated a lack of sensitivity regarding a co-worker’s alleged religious affiliation.” I have to say that while I believe in the accuracy of the finding, nothing in my conversations with educators indicated that this was a pattern of behavior with Blankenship.
It must have been in this light that the district concluded that he could return to work if he participated in sensitivity training and supervision. After returning to work on Friday, Blankenship chose retirement. What makes this especially curious is that there were indications that in both of the sexual harassment cases recently brought forth, Blankenship and Carrasco – who we will talk more about shortly – HR provided a pathway back to work, but both men chose retirement.
I find the district’s response to Blankenship’s retirement a little troubling:
“Bob Blankenship, director of STEAM for MNPS, has chosen to retire as of December 15, 2017 after 32 years serving our district. MNPS thanks Mr. Blankenship for his long and dedicated career as a teacher, multiple award-winning principal and finally STEAM director. He had already planned to retire when MNPS tapped him to fill the unexpected need for a STEAM director at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. His willingness to jump in to support and lead our STEAM project will not be forgotten. We wish him every bit of happiness as he embarks on his next adventure.”
While Blankenship may be well respected as an educator, his retirement still comes in response to being found guilty of touching someone in an inappropriate manner and making inappropriate comments in the work place. MNPS’s statement suggests that you can harass people and still get get your gold watch as you walk out the door. I’m not sure that’s the message the district should be sending, especially when the current culture is considered toxic.
It should also be highlighted that the district has been continually throwing money at and touting a STEAM transition, when that transition has essentially been leaderless for the first half of the school year. That should be a concern to the public.
TMZ alert. Early word on the street is that Overton HS principal Dr. Jill Pittman may be in the running to replace Blankenship. It seems that Pittman’s name is surfacing in every central office opening that becomes available, and I’m not sure that is fair. This year she has done a better job leading Overton HS despite some real challenges, and perhaps she deserves more recognition for that. We’ll keep our eyes on things as they develop.
THE SINGING CANARY
This week, News Channel 5 did two stories focusing on an MNPS high-ranking official, Mo Carrasco, who recently resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. Night one focused on the actual allegations themselves. Carrasco vehemently denies those allegations, but there are a couple exchanges in the interview that make me say, “Huh?” From what I’m told, there are at least 7 women who signed complaints, but neither Carrasco nor Phil Williams is provided that information. When Carrasco is asked about that, he explains that he asked HR but they told him, “Well, we were hoping the questions would connect and joggle your memory and identify who it was.” Why they wouldn’t tell him the number is baffling to me.
He also goes on to say that HR told him at one point the investigation had been closed and that he had nothing to worry about. He adds that something changed, and he believes that something is connected to enemies he made in the district by saying things about the work that people didn’t want to hear. Rumor has it that there is evidence out there that HR did indeed tell Carrasco that the charges had no merit. I can’t confirm that, because I’m still waiting for my open records request on Carrasco’s emails when he was out on administrative leave to be filled.
Night two of the interview focuses on how the district is run. This portion of the interview is like a live reading of Dad Gone Wild over the last year. I’ve had quite a few of the educators I talk to say, “What is the big deal? This is all stuff we already knew.” And that is true. There is nothing revealed that those who regularly read DGW didn’t already know. The importance comes from an actual high-ranking Maryland transplant saying them out loud for public record. I challenge anyone to produce evidence that what Carrasco says in relation to the running of the district is untrue.
Many will use his resignation in disgrace as a counter to the veracity of what he is saying. While his actions towards women in the district are indefensible, that doesn’t change how the district is being run. The question now becomes what are we going to do about it? Are we going to continue to just say Joseph and his team need more time? There was a lot that had to be fixed, right?
But as we continue to shine a spotlight on leadership, we continue to see more evidence that what we are doing is not working. Early indications on MAP testing completed last month indicate that literacy scores are not rising. Math scores apparently are, but not literacy. Could this be because we have such a terrible literacy plan?
Dr. Joseph continually defends the plan, but I would point to the fact that teachers are still complaining about it as an indication of how bad it really is. The way things typically work is that teachers are presented with a bad plan, they get mad and push back, and then they work on the plan and modify it so it works. After that, they focus on the work and become less vocal about it. I figured that was how things were going to work in regards to new literacy plan introduced at the beginning of the school year.
September came and teachers were only getting more vocal. October brought more complaints. November, equally as many. It is now December, and teachers are still mad and still speaking out. Five-star teachers, the best of the best, are voicing their concerns. That alone should be an indicator that we are on the wrong path and need to recalculate and adjust. Hubris comes right before the fall. Part of leadership is knowing when to adjust.
Carrasco is right, teachers are leaving. A quick look at MNPS’s employment portal will show that there are currently 183 certificated positions available. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are a large number of teachers that will not be returning after winter break. We already have kids in our high schools being taught via computer. How many more will have to be shifted to a digital platform in January because of a staffing shortage? This should be very concerning to everybody.
The district will try to sell Carrasco’s criticisms as those of a disgruntled employee. But Carrasco was so much more. As he says,”Dr. Joseph is someone I trained as a first-year principal. I mentored him for a long time. He was my daughter’s principal. I nominated him for principal of the year.”
MNPS’s response to the Carrasco interview is as poor as the one issued in regards to Blankenship’s departure:
“The sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Carrasco and his decision to resign prior to the conclusion of the investigation are unfortunate but should not cast a shadow on the exemplary work being done by administrators, teachers, staff and students every day in MNPS.
“Together, we have embarked upon an ambitious and aggressive agenda to improve outcomes for children in multiple areas. The complexity of the work requires additional capacity to execute. Our short-term use of consultant support has been necessary and effective to move indicators such as ACT, reading, mathematics and STEAM performance.”
It fails to acknowledge or discredit the described hiring practices, glosses over the sexual harassment charges, and chooses to focuses on what has always been a priority for district leadership, outside consultants. Furthermore, it touts STEAM, again, as a successful endeavor despite being leaderless for the majority of the school year.
So where is Joseph on all of this? Where is the school board? I wish I could tell you, but neither have deemed the situation worthy of a public statement. One can only suppose that Board Chair Anna Shepherd continues her unilateral support of everything that Dr. Joseph is doing in the district. One can only suppose that Dr. Joseph just considers this more noise and that we all just need to tune it out. Neither position could be further from the truth.
I urge everyone to contact their school board member and don’t stop there. Contact your council member. Contact Mayor Barry. As Carrasco says, “People need to know the truth. This district has been living too many lies.” It’s time for an honest conversation.
ADDED NOTE: After publication of this post, the Tennessean published an article with quotes from Dr. Joseph. When asked if bringing Carrasco to the district was a mistake, he responds that he didn’t think it was a mistake to bring Carrasco to Nashville and said, “Ultimately, he ended in MNPS doing the work he had been doing for years.” Read that how you want to.