The Metropolitan Nashville Public School District continues its annual budget process tomorrow. Things kick off at 4pm with a budget finance committee meeting, followed at 5pm by a regularly scheduled board meeting, followed by a public comment session to hypothetically begin at 6pm. It’s a lot of activity for an endeavor that to date doesn’t have a lot of clarity. Over the weekend, I made an effort to talk with a number of people in an attempt to illuminate the process a little more.
CURRENT YEAR FINANCES
One big challenge is keeping this year’s financial questions separate from the budgeting process for next year. As has been widely reported, the district, under the guise of austerity, has locked down all spending for the remainder of the year. The root of this action, per Director of Schools Dr. Joseph himself, is the decline in enrollment of students in MNPS. This under-enrollment has translated into a $7.5 million dollar shortfall for MNPS in this year’s remaining budget.
While $7.5 million in its own right is a daunting number, taken in the context of an overall budget of nearly $900 million, it is minuscule. Many have questioned MNPS’s reaction and have openly wondered if it’s not a bit of an overreaction. Surely the district has enough money stuffed in a coffee can somewhere that it can absorb the loss.
When locking down schools’ individual budgets, district officials informed principals that they would be able to apply for an exemption. Word over the weekend was that the majority of those requests were coming back denied. The message of depleted funding wasn’t just being sent internally either; business partners were also receiving the message that MNPS was out of money until the end of the year. Needless to say, the district’s actions have had an alarming effect on people.
It didn’t help optics that right in the middle of all this uneasiness and unrest, Dr. Joseph and school board chair Anna Shepherd headed to Seattle for a previously scheduled Rotary Club trip. A trip that saw Dr. Joseph presenting to a panel on building a deeper talent pool. It is not clear where the money from this trip was pulled from, but it certainly emitted a certain “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“ quality.
Many people questioned why MNPS was unaware of this pending enrollment shortage. Funding from the state is dependent on 20-day counts that begin 20 days after school starts and continue throughout the year. Surely it should have become apparent fairly quickly that the district wasn’t going to meet its projections. Why were adjustments not made at that time? Turns out they were.
During the first week of September, principals whose schools showed a lower enrollment than projected received an email from the district office informing them that as part of the fall budget adjustment process, their general funds were being decreased to account for the shortage in enrollment. Principals were further instructed on guidelines for reduction of staff if necessitated by the decreased funding.
Since the lower enrollment numbers had already been accounted for back in the fall, the question now arises, why the crisis? Where was the money removed from individual school’s accounts in the fall reallocated? Why didn’t Dr. Joseph, in his email or in communications with the press, ever acknowledge that the district was aware that they were not going to meet projections and as a result had already made adjustments?
That brings us to the second part of the equation and an area where I’m probably going to raise some hackles, but I think it is an important place to train our flashlights.
NEXT YEAR’S BUDGET
The MNPS School Board and public school activists have long raised the issue of the state of Tennessee’s failure to adequately fund public education. And they are correct. Board Member Amy Frogge recently wrote a solid Facebook post outlining the importance of proper funding and the Tennessee Ed Report has long chronicled the state’s failure to meet its obligations. This is a fact beyond dispute.
However, it’s also a narrative that benefits Dr. Joseph. In a year where the tea leaves are indicating that Nashville’s Metro Council, who ultimately controls the MNPS budget, has little inclination to increase the district’s budget, exploiting a crisis may just be a winning play. Veteran lobbyists and activists will testify that nothing changes politicians’ minds like outraged constituents. Get ’em emailing and calling, and politicians’ minds suddenly start a-changing.
Dr. Joseph isn’t the only one to potentially benefit from an increase in funding. Also on tomorrow’s school board agenda is the pending ratification of a recently-negotiated memorandum of understanding between MNEA and the district. The MOU calls for a much-deserved raise in exceptional education pay and professional development pay, as well as an overall raise for teachers. It will be very difficult for Joseph to deliver on those promises without an increase in the budget. And he’s definitely looking to deliver.
A quick look at the district’s budget page shows the following:
“To begin to address the findings of that analysis would require a 4.5 percent increase in the district’s pay scales at an estimated cost of $25.4 million. This amount includes a step increase for eligible staff. Improving salaries for all employees is a long-term endeavor that will take multiple years and strong partnership with city leaders and Metro Council.”
The cynic in me says that if the union can turn out enough people to apply pressure to Metro Council over the underfunding of schools and inspire them to raise the budget say… by $100 million, Joseph would be happy to turn over $25.4 million to teachers. That still leaves plenty of cash for friends and cronies… I mean educational experts and vendors.
If the increase is only half of that, well, a 2.5% raise and a promise for more is better than a sharp stick in the eye. If there is no increase, well, the state and Metro Council make perfect foils, and we all know Joseph loves a fall guy. Make enough noise and any outcome virtually assures a win for Joseph and the union.
I don’t necessarily fault the union for being complicit in this strategy. Their number one priority is, and should be, teachers. Teachers who deserve a contract and increased support. Happier and better supported teachers produce better educated students. That is an indisputable fact.
Further muddying up the waters are some disturbing rumors that have begun to reach my ears. Word on the street is that Joseph is reaching out to individual school board members and attempting to make the proposed budget a little more palpable by sweetening their individual district’s pot. I don’t know how much truth there is to those rumors, but if proven to be true, no one should be surprised. After all, it is politics. But it is one of the reasons I bristle so much when people pay lip service to the idea of equity.
Strangely still missing from the conversation is the proposed budget for central office. Anybody who shows up to speak tomorrow most likely will do so without ample time to analyze that portion of the budget. Early rumors indicated that this area would include more positions, higher salaries, and an overall increase in expenditures. Without actual numbers, all that’s left is speculation.
I urge those who show up to speak tomorrow, and those who contact board members and council members by email or phone, to demand increased funding, but also demand increased fiscal accountability. If our individual household budgets suddenly get out whack, we don’t just infuse more cash and move on. We evaluate our spending. We look at areas where we can make cuts and areas where we can be more efficient. Asking the district to do the same is a perfectly reasonable request.
Nashville is not unique in the funding issues it faces. Look at Seattle, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Las Vegas. All are facing a superintendent vacancy and many of the same issues as Nashville is facing. These districts were somewhat caught by surprise over their budget situations. Is that a place that Nashville wants to find itself in? I’m not suggesting that Dr. Joseph is leaving anytime soon, but two months ago, how many of us thought Nashville would be looking for a new mayor?
As a side note, after researching the aforementioned districts, and scrutinizing other district’s recent hires, I can’t help but conclude that there is a dearth of talent when it comes to superintendents for large urban districts. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, considering that there is an ongoing teacher shortage. Further compounding the superintendent problem is the fact that most of the newer candidates are somehow connected to the Broad Superintendent Academy, which has not done a good job of preparing candidates to be effective leaders. Critics warned about this trend years ago and now I think we’re seeing its fruition.
Russians have a saying that I think applies here, “Доверяй, но проверяй” – Trust but verify. We need to trust that district leaders are doing what’s best for Nashville students, but there can be no harm in verifying that trust is well-placed. In fact, I would argue that we owe it to students and their families.
Please, if you attend upcoming budget meetings, demand more resources, but also demand that we account for the ones already allocated. Our schools need more funding. Funding for teacher salaries, para-pros, substitutes, SEL implementation, capital needs, and more. We don’t need more funding for scripted curriculum, the wholesale turnover of middle schools to STEAM schools, and the hiring of people to do the work that we can do better in-house. In light of all of this, I urge you to ask the powers-that-be to shine a light into the corners of the budget. It’s essential if we are going to protect our public schools.
Remember back in January when state legislators said vouchers were off the table this year? Well, their lips were moving and you know what that means. This week there is not one, but two bills coming up that involve vouchers. As always, TREE is out in front on the issue. Get those dialing and emailing fingers warmed up.
A few props are probably deserved for MNPS this morning. The 2-hour delay was the right call for today. I wish they would have made the call earlier because I don’t believe that a call at 10:16pm adequately accounts for our EL and impoverished student families’ needs, but I appreciate that they made the right call. Many of our lower socio-economic families lack access to what many would consider basic communication methods. When your phone gets shut off regularly, or you move a whole bunch, it is difficult for you to maintain current contact information with the district.
Employment conditions also need considerations. Most of our poorer families have jobs that leave little flexibility when it comes to attendance. Being late translates into a minimum of a lost day of wages and possibly termination. Arranging day care for the day is easier than finding someone to watch for two hours and then coordinate with getting students to school. I wonder how many of these kids just stayed home instead of navigating the delay. For these reasons and more, I urge the district to improve its notification system.
Word on the street is that the MNPS Executive Director of Facilities and Grounds Maintenance is now on administrative leave. Seems as if he wasn’t a fan of those water filters parents wanted installed in schools. He probably shouldn’t be the only one placed on leave, but it doesn’t seem like the investigation into lead in schools’ drinking water is done, so we’ll see. Check out the News Channel 5 story for yourself.
I guess this is National Public Schools Week, but then again every week is public school week for me. I urge all of you to continue to support our great public schools. They serve as pillars of our democracy.
Celebrating the reading of books at Tulip Grove Elementary School! What a joyful picture. Reading rocks!
The ACT is right around the corner! Visit ACT.org to find resources to help you prepare for the test on March 20: http://bit.ly/2FGBxgg
I am currently reading Jazz saxophonist Art Peppers autobiography Straight Life. If you thought rock and roll was wild, check out how the Jazz greats lived.
Exceptional response to this week’s poll results. Thank you and let’s review.
The first question asked how you felt about Dr. Joseph’s proposed plan to redistribute Title I funds. To say you didn’t approve would be an understatement. 34% of you responded that it made you angry, and 25% of you voiced that favoring one group of students over another just increased inequity. Out of 151 responses, only 6 of you felt the new plan promoted equity.
As a parent of children who have attended a high-needs school for the last 4 years, I have a bit of an idea on the inequities our children face. Just devoting more money to a school doesn’t make things equitable. You might be shocked to find out just how much money our priority schools already have. The inequities derive more from experiences. Do science and social studies get sacrificed in order to focus on reading and math? Do kids receive a robust arts education? Are expectations raised to a level appropriate for kids or to one that meets adult-created KPI’s? Do students have regular access to professionals in the business community? Those, in my opinion, are just a few of the questions that need to be raised when it come to discussing equity. A conversation that is long overdue.
Here are the write-ins:
|more bad ideas from Dr. Joseph and ‘team’||1|
|There are poor students in non-title I schools||1|
|We don’t have enough information to understand the redistribution.||1|
|Can’t really know w/o the plan to use the funds||1|
|Joseph is creating a racial divide||1|
|It infuriates me and my school isn’t even title 1.||1|
|Why is Dr. Joseph hiring people? Mo’s position||1|
|Where’s the central office budget in all this info???||1|
|Making PTSOs make up the shortfall of federal dollars is not equity.|
Question two asked if you think Nashville has made strides when it comes to equity. Unfortunately, 51% of you feel that we’ve made backward strides. Out of 134 responses, only 4 of you feel that things have gotten more equitable. I’ll just let that sit there. After 2 years with Dr. Joseph at the helm, only 4 people out of 135 respondents feel that we’ve improved equity. I find that extremely disturbing.
Here are the write-ins:
|Rob Peter to pay Paul. Unfair!||1|
|Having to prioritize equity bc of wealth inequity||1|
|Joseph is making charters look good. At least we take our money with us.||1|
|Look at Karen Gallman’s pay scale-is that equity||1|
|From decades ago yes. This new plan no, just no||1|
|The problems in HS with $$$ are less $ per pupil but equity in business partners||1|
|Not in advanced academics, which it wants to defund||1|
|How are we defining equity? MNPS leaders don’t seem to be cogent on definition.|
The last question was in regards to your perception of the quality of school districts surrounding Nashville. The reason I ask is because one of the reasons given for MNPS’s recent decline in enrollment is the attractiveness of other counties’ school districts. Not surprisingly, Williamson led the votes with 51% of the vote. But Rutherford, Sumner, and Wilson counties all pulled double-digit responses. We’ll keep watching this one.
Here are the write-ins:
|Biggest correlation to “good” schools is SES||1|
|I’ve been told they are all more respectful of teachers than MNPS.||1|
|Any system not run by folks from Maryland||1|
|Dr. Joseph is robbing us blind||1|
|Ultimately it depends on “attractive.” To whom? In what way?||1|
|Doesn’t matter to me. I’m too old to start over.||1|
|Is Connecticut too far away?||1|
|No freakin idea||1|
|I have no idea||1|
There ya go. Another one in the bag. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I’m always looking for more opinions and try to promote as many of the things sent to me as possible, but I do apologize if I fall short and don’t get them out there.
I have started using Patreon as a funding source. If you think what I do has monetary value, you can go there and make a donation/pledge. Trust me, I know I ain’t going to get rich, but at the end of the day I’m just a Dad trying to get by. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page as well.
I feel like the timing in calling the weather delayed opening was probably because there was a chance it would get bad enough to be a whole day out instead of late start. I think the timing was acceptable given that possibility.