STUDYING THE ROADMAP

This weekend, I did a lot reading on Nashville’s financial situation and the changing of the guard in Prince George’s County Public Schools. The two would seem to have little in common, but I think both offer lessons of value. At the core of both issues are the words spoken by Nashville Mayor David Briley at this year’s State of Metro address: “I do not need to remind you that some of the problems we are trying to solve today are magnified by our own failure to act in the past.” Yes indeed.

The State of Metro speech, over the past decade, has been a celebratory affair. Almost like a kickoff to Derby weekend. The city’s elite deck themselves out in their finest and gather to celebrate Nashville’s pending world dominance. People are moving here at a rapid rate and there was nothing but pots of gold awaiting them when they got here. Or so past addresses would indicate.

We congratulated ourselves on the construction of arenas, convention centers, ball parks, soccer stadiums, and amphitheaters with nothing but perfunctory thought towards infrastructures. I know some of you will read that last sentence and take offense, but before you offer a defense, drive by our schools, drive our roads, and pay the parking costs downtown. For all its glory, I’m not sure the new Nashville is really for Nashvillians anymore. But I digress.

Over the years, I’ve heard whispers in the background questioning how all of this progress was going to get paid for. Those who questioned too loudly were either ignored or labeled as barriers to progress. There was always another bond to be written or money that could be shuffled from pile A to pile D. Therefore cost shouldn’t be a driving concern.

Last year Metro Nashville came up with its newest gimmick. Property values had soared so much in the “IT City” that it was surmised if a citywide reappraisal of properties were conducted, revenues could be increased without actually raising taxes. This was considered a brilliant idea because everyone knows how much residents of Davidson County hate tax increases.

Again, some may object to this strategy being a gimmick and try to defend it. I label it a gimmick because it tries do a good thing – increase revenue – while not mentioning a bad thing – raising taxes. The consensus was that once appraisals were done, the city would have more money. Unfortunately, gimmicks are tricky things and don’t always work as advertised. This one didn’t. The city has ended up with less money, a lot less money.

That’s a hard pill for Nashvillians to swallow. After all, many of us were given the impression that the city was making money hand over fist. Those tax breaks for another corporation weren’t a big deal, we’ll make more. Nine billion for transit, no worries, Amazon is coming. Every expenditure was sold with a promise of how we were going to recoup tenfold, yet here we are and in need of an explanation.

Who would be more qualified to give that explanation than the man who sat ringside to virtually every financial decision over the last decade, Rich Riebeling. But have you seen him lately? Ever since Briley has taken over, you might as well stamp Reibeling’s face on the proverbial milk carton, because there is nary a word from him as of late.

Reibeling was always advertised as the city’s sharpest financial mind. I would think that now would be a time that called out for that mind’s insight. After all, I’ve sat in innumerable community meetings where he belittled people for merely raising questions. Now, when we could really use some of those brilliant explanations, we get crickets. He could be on an island in South of France for all we know.

To his credit, Mayor Briley is facing the challenge head on. I hope that MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph is noticing how it’s Briley who steps to the microphone every time and not some proxy delivering the bad news. Briley does so at considerable personal expense. He’s running for re-election as mayor, and tight budgets seldom translate into increased vote totals. Yet there he is, front and center, taking the heat.

As a result of the city’s finances, Metro Nashville Public School’s allocation of monies will be considerably smaller than requested. To the tune of $40 million dollars.

The biggest hit will be to teachers, as they won’t be receiving a proposed 2.5% raise. It’s a raise teachers need and deserve, but one that Briley would be hard pressed to justify while not giving an equally deserved raise to the city’s police officers and fire fighters.

Last year, I argued that teacher raises should take precedence over investments in STEAM programming and other outside programs. That argument fell on deaf ears and here we are this year, short on money.

I do have to ask, as upset as people are, are they really surprised? I would go further and say that Dr. Joseph’s proposed budget set people up to be disappointed. Listen to any one of his public speeches and you’ll hear him tout his friendship with both Mayor Barry and Mayor Briley. He often comments on how frequently they talk. Yet, apparently neither mayor clued him in on the city’s finances.

Other than the occasional public greeting of “Hello, TC,” neither of the mayors ever talk to me. Yet somehow, I was able to glean enough information to pick up on the fact that there was going to be a lack of money this year and therefore a budget that called for a limited increase in funding. In Joseph’s eyes, an extra $45 million like he asked for may constitute a tight budget. I’d beg to differ.

In my eyes, it’s like me telling you that I’m having trouble meeting my mortgage and you take that as an opportunity to ask me for a $10k loan with the caveat that you really needed $40k and that only asking for the 10 was an acknowledgement that I was broke.

I get that there are certain obligations that make it hard to not ask for additional funds. But just like with the recently-ended free meals for all kids program, there should have been recognition of the pending challenges and talks ignited to address those. Asking for an extra $45 million is not an indicator that those talks ever transpired. Especially in light of recent revelations that an extra $25 million is required just to meet charter school growth requirements and pension expenses.

Again, the losers here are the students and teachers. Not only did Joseph allow teachers to labor under the misconception that raises were a possibility, but in order to generate cover for canceling Reading Recovery, Joseph doubled down on expectations by raising the ask to 2.5%. Either he wasn’t listening to what the mayor was saying or he was too infatuated with his own agenda to care. Neither reason should be acceptable.

As far as students go, remember the touting of increased participation in advanced academics and how this success was a result of the district paying for required end-of-course tests? Yeah, well, early indications are that won’t be the case this coming year. You have to love how we brag about the success with one side of our mouth while cutting the financing with the other.

I’m willing to chalk up some of the budget problems to Dr. Joseph’s inexperience. I know what you’re saying: “He’s no rookie. He’s got 25 years in education.” That sounds great if you say it fast. The reality is that he only has 3.5 years of experience as a superintendent. And 18 months of that time was spent in a school district made up of 6 schools. For the sake of comparison, that’s less than half the number of schools in the Maury County School District.

Joseph’s tenure in Seaford, Delaware, is one that can only be described as a flame out. A flame out that can be attributed to a overinflated budget. Joseph submitted a budget based on the premise that residents would be so enamored with his leadership that they would approve a tax hike. That presumption would prove inaccurate, and Joseph split for Montgomery County, failing to honor his whole contract and leaving the remaining leaders to fix the issues caused by his initiatives. Equity now!

The reality is that Dr. Joseph is little more than a novice when it comes to heading up a large urban distract and that includes the construction of a budget with the magnitude of Nashville’s. The MNPS school board is made up of people individually with equal or more experience in the formation of a large urban school district’s budget. Joseph might argue that he sat to the right of Kevin Maxwell in Prince George’s County Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the country, during the drafting of their annual budget. But that opens up the door for further examination of exactly he learned under the tutelage of Dr. Maxwell.

Ninety-five percent of Shawn Joseph’s experience in education comes through his tenure at Prince George’s County Public Schools and its neighbor, Montgomery County Public Schools. He taught in those districts. He became an administrator in those districts. He became a leader in those districts. It’s safe to say the majority of what he knows about running a large urban school district is derived from his experiences at both PGCPS and MCPS. Two school districts that are very different from Nashville.

In the wake of PGCPS CEO Kevin Maxwell’s recent resignation announcement, people have taken the opportunity to review his tenure, and let’s just say, it ain’t pretty. The last several years under Maxwell’s leadership, PGCPS has seen only slight progress while being hampered by ceaseless controversy. Granted, much of that controversy stems from their governance model – the majority of the school board is appointed and the County Director appoints the school’s CEO – which is, again, decidedly different than Nashville’s model.

I would argue that their model, and the pitfalls that have befallen Maxwell, does illustrate potential perils if the MNPS school board continues to take a largely hands-off role. There is already evidence that many of those complications that have befallen PGCPS – like selective and secretive compensation for central office staff, lack of transparency, failure to take accountability, lack of response to parents – have already begun to raise their head in MNPS.

It is only natural for our actions to emulate our influences. At times, though, that emulation can prove detrimental to our success. That’s where we need those with more experience to step in and offer guidance.

However, it is equally important to not remain so ingrained in our past that we fail to recognize a better way to do things. As they say, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” As in everything, balance is essential.

When I examine instances that have ended in catastrophe, I’m often struck by the fact that the resulting conclusion wasn’t inevitable.  There were many exit ramps on the road to the dumpster fire. With a little self-examination, adjustments could have been made in order to avoid calamity. Abject failure is seldom a certainty. But you have to be willing to recognize an exit ramp when you see it and be willing to take it.

Hopefully, Nashville is beginning to read the roadmap that is being laid out. Hopefully, our leaders are choosing the best routes. Briley’s unwillingness to go into the fund balance in order to avoid taking a risky political position is a positive sign. Hopefully, they are keeping their eyes focused on the road ahead, while not losing sight of what’s in the rearview mirror. As always, time will tell. Time will tell.

QUICK HITS

Principal assignments for next year are starting to leak out, and the reception to those assignments is proving to be a little less than enthusiastic. I applaud the idea of allowing community members to be a part of the hiring process, but that means they can’t be just for show. Mama taught me a long time ago, don’t mess with a person’s money or time. Calling someone in for something that proves to consistently be nothing but a dog and pony show does the latter. Nothing breeds animosity like making someone believe they have some power and then demonstrating that they are powerless.

Is anybody else wondering why, within 6 months of arriving in Nashville, Dr. Narcisse was interviewing for positions elsewhere? Dr. Joseph claimed he was bringing in the best and brightest, but I guess he was only renting them. Apparently, even making his wife one of the top 10 highest-paid employees in MNPS isn’t enough incentive to keep Sito off the interview train. Here’s a question: since it’s apparent that Dr. Narcisse is leaving at the first available opportunity, how much effort has been put into training a successor? You know, so we don’t lose any of that hard-won progress. Does anybody remember that movie Hardbodies and the endless pursuit of the BBD? Or the immortal words of Johnny Rotten and the Winterland in San Fransisco?

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, AKA the one week a year we pretend not to take teachers for granted. I’m not a fan of Teacher Appreciation Week. Not because I don’t appreciate teachers – au contraire – but rather because I think one week isn’t sufficient. 52 weeks would be more appropriate. That said, I know teachers do appreciate your acts of kindness this week and I encourage all to participate.

If you were one of those MNPS educators who were at the Teacher of the Year banquet, and were wondering why Dr. Joseph and his sidekick weren’t in attendance, I have an answer. They were in Chicago, along with several other central office folks, for an SEL conference. Ah, the irony.

State legislators in Colorado have begun to notice the cost of the teacher shortage and this year have dedicated $10 million toward rectifying things. Some very interesting ideas and, I think, a good start.

Remember the Community Eligibility Program? You know, where all kids got fed free lunch and breakfast everyday? The one we will not be participating in next year? A new study has shown that it has contributed to making students in participating districts healthier. All the more reason not to continue, right?

POLL RESULTS

The poll questions got a lot of response this week. Let’s take a look.

The first question was in response to a proposed 10-day suspension for Carlton Battle. Some of you disputed the evidence cited in the paperwork submitted for board approval as part of this week’s school board agenda. The board will be voting on whether a 10-day suspension is sufficient. The report says that Battle “went out into the hallway,” responded to the parent’s attempt to make physical contact by punching them in the “face several times,” and then left the premises without reporting the incident to the proper authorities or MNPS officials. I have to believe that those conclusions are based on district investigation and rooted in fact.

If those are incorrect statements, then the board has no business voting on the appropriateness of the punishment. I’m willing to give a little benefit of the doubt to Battle based on rumblings I’ve heard on the motivations for actions taken by HR leadership and people vouching for his character. Still, a lot of questions remain. Questions that, in my eyes, need clarification before proceeding.

That said, 39% of you indicated that his actions should result in nothing less than termination and 18% of you indicated that you would have a hard time with him supervising your children. Here are the write-ins:

No 2
Why was the parent in the locker room 2
No action needed. Mr. Battle is great a role model that my kids look up to. 1
punishment not needed 1
I thought he has been gone for 30+ days already. 1
No punishment needed 1
The parent assaulted Battle. The parent should be arrested instead 1
Mr. Battle is a well respected and stand up guy. Allegations are false! 1
I know him to be innocent of these charges AND he’s a great man. 1
Fire him 1
And this is different from the daily ongoings in the schools how? 1
If not community supt sibling, would have already been fired. 1
You have the story wrong on Battle 1
He should be fired 1
Can you imagine your Dr collecting money – fundraisers – why ask a teacher to?

Question number 2 asked if you though Mayor Briley was fair with his budget allocation to MNPS. 55% of you responded in a manner that indicated you felt he was doing the best he could with the cards dealt to him. 14% indicated that you felt he should have gotten schools more. Here are the write-ins:

Hard to get more when you don’t spend current funds wisely 1
The MNPS budget needs to go back to the drawing board. 1
The response to an asinine request was equally asinine 1
I think they see a budget that is riddled with errors and shooting low will for. 1
Why are teachers always last in line? Time for a new career. 1
Nope, lost my vote too. 1
YES! Joseph needs to spend $ correctly 1
His message is clear to Joseph-stop wasting $ 1
Should have not given any extra & asked more ?? 1
time for a tax referendum – public school funds should match private school 1
time to create a tax referendum- public schools need the same funds as private 1
The budget failure falls on Dr Joseph’s head

The last question asked who was getting your vote for Nashville’s next mayor. If results are to be trusted, two frontrunners have emerged. Briley got 41% of the vote to Carol Swain’s 38%, which would indicate that a run off is in Nashville’s future, since neither got over 50%. Here are the write-ins:

Megan Barry 3
TC Weber 1
Unsure at the moment 1
Out of county
Hope y’all have an awesome week. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I’m always looking for more opinions and will try to promote as many of the events that you send to me as possible, but I do apologize in advance if I fall short and don’t get them all 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. Just because Andy Spears is also on Patreon doesn’t mean you can’t support us both. 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. And if you are so inclined, check out the Thomas “TC” Weber for MNPS District 2 School Board page.

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