I’m going to do something today that I don’t normally do. I’m going to compliment the MNPS school board. This week’s meeting, and the governance committee meeting that accompanied it, looked more like an actual meeting than the normal staged event it has become. For that, I think all board members deserve kudos.
It was certainly a meeting that had some heft and all board members did their part in fleshing things out. For the first time in a long time, board members asked hard questions publicly. Questions that more closely reflected the questions that community members have raised for months. It was good to see board members holding the director and others accountable and doing so in a respectful manner.
I’ve heard some folks comment that they felt there were some fireworks involved in the meetings. I disagree. There were moments of discomfort certainly, but I think everybody remained respectful. People were certainly blunt, but I didn’t feel they were rude.
There were moments when emotions spilled over. I welcome that. Remember we are dealing with kids and their futures here. Kids who, I don’t think anybody would argue, are not being fully served. I think a little anger is good. If it makes people a little uncomfortable, good. Change isn’t borne out of comfort, and we certainly need some change, either in policy or personnel.
That said, there are a few things I would like to direct your attention to that happened in both meetings. And some clarifications I think are necessary.
We’ve spent about two years observing Dr. Joseph, and I think, based on evidence, it’s safe to say that he does not react positively to criticism. In fact, every time he is publically criticized he tends to lash out at the perpetrator. Look at the body of evidence:
- The TV stations air stories that are unfavorable to the good doctor, and station managers all get calls from MNPS trying to have reporters reigned in.
- The director gets criticized for his choice of music at a principals meeting, and suddenly the Tennessee Tribune, the city’s African-American newspaper, is running an op-ed piece about the “unfair prosecution” of Dr. Joseph. Ironically that article is attributed to the father of Arnett Bodenhammer, who is at the center of a series of stories about the district’s failure to report teacher misconduct to the state. Bodenhamer Sr.’s piece appeared days after a meeting with Dr. Joseph and around the time junior’s charges were reduced.
- Call for an audit and the Doc will cut the literacy program that you’ve championed for the betterment of kids without offering a viable option.
- Criticize the director and suddenly your entire personal financial history is the subject of public scrutiny. Did anybody else notice how fast that Fran Bush story disappeared?
- Criticize the director at budget hearings and he’ll get his fraternity brothers to show up at a public hearing and paint you as a racist.
History dictated that after this week’s board meeting, the Tennessee Tribune would once again jump to Joseph’s defense. And they did not disappoint by printing an op-ed piece on Thursday.
Interestingly enough, in defending him, the newspaper failed to identify another one of Joseph’s fiercest critics who has been very outspoken, new board member Fran Bush. A board member who happens to be an African-American. I’m sure it’s just an oversight that they ran pictures of the two white women while ignoring a fellow African-American who is being equally hard on Dr.Joseph. If I didn’t know better, I would think there was an agenda at play here.
I’m not denying the Director’s right to mount a defense. My concern is rather the tenor of that defense, I would ask that he be cautious in the narratives that he is painting in his defense and consider the ramifications beyond self interest.
His strategy in response to criticism seems to be one of division. Dividing people is never the best strategy for overcoming problems. Attacking sitting board members might have been a successful strategy in Prince George’s County, where school board members are appointed. Here in Nashville, where board members are elected, it is not really a workable strategy.
Seeing as the director reports directly to and in actuality, works for, the school board, the onus should be on him to ensure a working relationship between the himself and the board. I get that he may have issues with certain board members. He is not the only one who has ever had to work for a boss that they thought was a jackass. You have to find a way to work with them. If not, you won’t be successful.
I reflect on the story a friend who was a VP for a company making mid-six figures once related to me. He’d been in his position for a couple of years and hadn’t had a good relationship with his supervisor throughout his tenure – hard to believe, but making mid-six figures does not free you from the yoke of a boss. When it came time to sit down for his annual review, his boss commented, “You and I have never seen eye to eye, have we?”
“No, we haven’t,” my friend acknowledged.
“Yeah, I think it’s time we just end this whole relationship.”
And with those words, my friend was no longer employed. He’d been very successful at his job and was well respected throughout the industry for his skills. None of that came into play. He could not get along with his boss, and therefore, he was forced to seek new employment.
It would behoove Joseph to pay heed to that story. Open warfare with your boss never works out well. They aren’t going to change their behavior to suit your needs. It’s you who has to find a way to collaborate. Somehow that reality has been lost when it comes to MNPS. Will someone please help it be found?
FURTHER NOTES FROM MEETINGS
What follows is a hodgepodge of observations and inference drawn from the recent school board meeting.
There was a good conversation held on the process MNPS employs in reporting teacher misconduct to the state and the corrections MNPS has made in order to stay in compliance with state regulations. As outlined by the MNPS HR department, they draw up discipline paperwork based on their investigations, findings, and actions, and then submits it to the director’s office to be signed. The director’s office then signs it and submits it to the state, followed by a receipt to the HR department signifying that the required paperwork has been filed. Sounds foolproof, right?
It may be until the director intercedes and doesn’t adhere to the department’s recommendation. This is what happened with the aforementioned Bodenhammer case. The principal and HR made a recommendation, and then Dr. Joseph met with Bodenhammer. Based on that meeting, his disciplinary action was altered. So in this case, how would HR know what paperwork to write-up? Maybe Dr. Joseph notified them, maybe he didn’t.
It is disappointing that MNPS leadership continues to try to focus blame on former employees. While blaming an ex is certainly convenient, that employee’s complete role was not shared during the explanation of the current process. In the end, no matter how many allegedly disgruntled employees may be involved, the responsibility for reporting still lies with the director.
During the governance meeting, it was a little disturbing that some board members seemed unfamiliar with recently-passed policy. Nearly all of the board policy has been updated as of late and approved by board members. Surely they familiarized themselves with it before approving.
A robust discussion on the recently completed metro audit of MNPS spending. I urge you to watch it, specifically the portion that centers on the director’s travel budget.
Per the audit, the director has $2,700 annually in his budget, but regularly exceeds that by $10k-11k a year. As a defense, it was offered up that 2 years ago, the director’s first year, the board did a lot of traveling and that’s the reason for exceeding the budget.
Ok… but why is this hard? The way it should play out is that the director says to the board, “Hey, I think we should do a retreat in Chattanooga.”
The board says, “Ok, do you have enough in your budget to cover your travel? You do? Well, we don’t have enough in ours. Do you have enough to cover us out of yours as well? No? Then we are not going to Chattanooga this year. Let’s make a note of this and budget enough for next year.”
That’s what families all across the district do every day, every year. Why should district leadership be any different? They seem to think that you just write a budget as an estimate and spend what you desire. Shifting money around at will.
As you probably know, the law firm Bone, McCallister, and Norton has been hired to do some HR auditing for the district. There was a discussion on that scope of work. Based on what I heard, their role will be to create policy, write policy, and train staff on policy. All of which, I would argue, should be the responsibility of the two women employed by the district and making over $300k a year combined. If they are incapable of performing that task, why are we not replacing them with people who can, instead of paying an outside entity additional money to do their job?
During the meeting, the board finally discussed lead in schools’ drinking water. A discussion that should have taken place 2 years ago, but why quibble. Unfortunately, Executive Officer of Operations Ken Stark is still out peddling the canard that flushing is part of EPA protocols. The good news is that the Mayor’s office has gotten Metro Water involved and the situation has noticeably improved.
One last thing, board members continue to heap praise on district leaders for merely conducting tests. Keep that in mind when you go to the doctor and he orders cancer tests, but once the tests come back positive, he fails to offer treatment. Hey, cancer treatment is expensive and he didn’t think you could afford it. Thank God he ordered the tests. At least now you know you’re dying, right?
Executive Director of Innovation Schools Lisa Coons presented on the recently released state priority school list. Coons did a better job here then she did at the press conference held the day before. I still fail to see how any of this is considered a plan. There is nothing in the “plan” that is significantly different then what we should be doing for all schools.
High quality teachers are considered one of the four pillars, yet the district is still woefully understaffed when it comes to teachers at ALL schools. How is the Innovation office going to counter a districtwide trend? I’m sure it will be done through yet another survey or focus group.
The most disturbing portion of Coons’s presentation came when Jill Speering asked how many priority schools we actually had previously. Was it 15, 14, 11, or 9? All numbers that have been bandied about. Instead of just answering the question, Coons tried to equivocate about what year did Speering mean. She could only talk about last year because that was her first year in the district. Huh?
Only knowing the history since you got here should be unacceptable to everybody. Before forming a plan for the future, you need to be well versed in the past. It’s imperative that the people moving us forward can recite the past with a deep understanding. If you don’t know the past, how do you guarantee that you are not just repeating it?
Dr. Joseph likes to state, “We know what it takes to get off the list.” I disagree. The work that led to Whitsitt, Inglewood, Pearl Cohn, exiting the priority list started 3 years ago. Over the last two years, Dr. Joseph brought 2 of his own people in from Maryland. Both of which failed to make an impact.
So, no, you don’t know what it takes. But the people before you apparently did. Therefore it may prove beneficial to study that history and be able to recite it as if it were yours. Just saying.
I’d suggest taking a look at that priority school list and ask yourself how many of those schools have seen continual turnover at the principal position. Then look at the reward schools and ask yourself the same question. Just saying. I’m betting one has more stability than the other.
I’d also keep an eye on that pillar of “effective instruction.” Much of the language used here is eerily similar to that used by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and their support of CKLA. We’ll talk more about that in the future, but until then I’ll leave you with TNTP’s recently released study on the Opportunity Myth. I do suggest reading Peter Greene’s Field Guide to Bad Education Research before diving into the TNTP piece.
During the board meeting, there was a discussion centered around Dr. Joseph’s driver. This driver is a source of contention with many stakeholders. If you are unfamiliar with the power of symbolism, I suggest picking up a copy of Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth is a good starting place.
The assertion was made that previous directors also utilized a driver. That is incorrect. Chris Henson drove his own vehicle and it also impressed me to see him pull up to a school in his own car by himself to visit. Dr. Register drove himself and if several administrators were going to the same place, they rode together with Register driving. Dr. Garcia also drove himself until MEDICAL reasons forced him to utilize a driver towards the end of his tenure.
Those are just a few of my observations. I encourage you to watch the meetings and form your own opinions. We should take heart, though, that board members are starting to take the gloves off. While it provides some short-term discomfort, in the long run, it will prove beneficial.
I recently came across this article entitled “Why Your Students Don’t Like to Read.” It’s one of my favorite in recent memory. Unfortunately, the writer’s relating to middle school reading practices rings all too true:
My love for reading disappeared when I got to middle school. Every book we were assigned came with standards-aligned questions, literary analysis prompts, and essays. We would get to class, copy 10 or so questions off the board, sit at our desks while our peers read aloud (God forbid we turned the page early), and then we would answer each question in a complete sentence. That was it. And then we would go home, read 10 more pages, and answer some more questions in complete sentences. It was agony. I used to doze off and turn the page as soon as I heard the entire class doing the same.
I love her analogy of how the joy of reading is killed:
Imagine going home after a long day, collapsing on your couch, and turning on your favorite guilty pleasure — The Bachelor. Now, imagine that you have to take notes, answer ridiculous comprehension questions, analyze what each contestant meant when they said something provocative, and then write an argumentative essay about which contestant should be chosen at the end.
So, so, so true, I urge everyone to read it.
Vesia Hawkins continues to write very thoughtful pieces over at the blog Volume & Light. Her latest talks about the recently released priority school list and Nashville’s failure to live up to its obligations in regard to black and brown kids. While I don’t agree with all of her assertions, I do believe she offers valuable insight and I truly appreciate her work.
Over at TNEd Report, Andy Spears does us all a favor by collecting Maplewood teacher Jarred Amato’s series of tweets. I’ve long been a fan of Amato’s despite us disagreeing on some subjects. The beauty of my relationship with Amato is that our major respect has never come with the caveat of universal agreement. I urge you to read his words and think about them.
In late breaking news, MNPS sent a letter to middle school teacher Sonji Collins that they have wrapped up their investigation and, yes, she was sexually harassed. Collins has a pending lawsuit against the district. So I’m assuming negotiations will start soon.
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