I was wrong. It pains me to write those words. Like anybody else, I don’t like to admit when I’ve made a bad decision or came to the wrong conclusion. I like to cling to the belief that I’m omniscient and seldom get things wrong. However, in this case, I drunk-sexted the bee. I Eiffel-towered the Hippo.
There is no way around it, and today I come to you humbled and apologetic.
You see, all the way up to yesterday’s vote for MNPS school board chair, I argued that board member Will Pinkston would vote for fellow board member – and long time ally – Amy Frogge for chair. There are few people I find more morally reprehensible than Pinkston, but I was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it came to his loyalty to something, or somebody, besides himself. Based on history, it was a logical thought that Amy Frogge and Jill Speering would be those embodiments.
All three board members were elected together six years ago and had formed a coalition of defenders of public education. Both Speering and Frogge have supported Pinkston no matter how far he got out of line, even when he took it upon himself to single-handedly remove the previous Director of Schools. As far as she has gone with Dr. Joseph, Speering has yet to take it to the levels that Pinkston employed back then.
Both board members have lent him their unequivocal support, despite his widely being recognized as a bully. One who was never afraid to lash out at fellow board members. No matter how difficult it got, nor how much heat they took, neither Frogge nor Speering ever wavered in their support for Pinkston. Going as far as to give him money when his re-election campaign had none.
Teachers and union members have also long considered Pinkston a champion and welcomed his defense of their interests. Sadly, those interests were only viable when advancing them would prove beneficial to his own interests. In neither of the last two years could Pinkston’s voice be heard among those demanding raises for teachers or support staff. Still, both entities remained loyal to him.
Yesterday’s board chair election was viewed by many as an opportunity to have the board finally demand some accountability from the Director of Schools. Amy Frogge has long championed the interests of families and teachers. It was widely recognized that she was the best chance to right a ship that has blown dramatically off course. She offered transparency, accountability, and leadership. Exactly what MNPS needs at the moment.
The other option was Dr. Sharon Gentry. There is ample evidence of what Dr. Gentry’s leadership looks like, as she had been board chair for two tumultuous years prior to the outgoing chair Anna Shepherd. So we’ve all seen the movie. Expecting her current tenure to end any differently than her previous one is like going to see Avenger: Infinity War and expecting everybody to survive at the end. No matter how many times you see the movie, it ends the same – in tragedy.
Leading up to last night’s vote, well over 100 parents emailed board members and implored them to heed their pleas and vote for Frogge. In my mind, it did not compute that Pinkston, with teachers and union members in the room, would throw years of demonstrated loyalty aside and vote for Gentry. No matter how low my opinion of Pinkston is, that was a scenario I could not wrap my head around. I was convinced he was playing chicken with Frogge by saying he wouldn’t vote for her. He wasn’t.
That was the first shoe to drop. The second was newly-elected board member Gini Pupo-Walker. Walker and I have significant philosophical differences when it comes to testing, charter schools, and TFA. However, she has been an employee in MNPS for 20-plus years and forged many of the same relationships as I have. She has heard the same pleas for help that I have. She has heard the same questions raised about the board’s perceived lack of concern for MNPS’s professional educators and neediest students as I have.
Pupo-Walker witnessed firsthand the devastating reign of former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia and, as such, understands better than most just how difficult rebuilding is and how much damage the wrong director can do. Surely she could see the similarities between the two administrations.
It was my belief that the voices pleading for help would resonate with her, and she would signal right from the beginning of her term that she was ready to fight for those who lacked champions and that change was coming. Her vote did neither.
Despite our philosophical disagreements, in talking with Pupo-Walker I felt that she recognized the issues facing the district and was committed to righting them as quickly as possible. I was wrong, and I was guilty of what I caution others against: perceiving people based on their words instead of their actions.
Personally, I believe Pupo-Walker has made a grave mistake by casting her lot with Gentry, and as such, has missed a prime opportunity. In a speech she read on the board floor last night, and has since posted on her Facebook page, she closes with the following: “I will remain focused on helping my fellow board members succeed, and do what I can to increase our effectiveness, and do my part to build a culture of mutual respect and collaboration, so that our children and our staff can excel, and our city can thrive.”
A more astute board member would have surveyed the land, recounted the manner in which Gentry led in the past, and then voted in a manner that would put them in a position to carry out the aforementioned. They would have realized how far down the road the opposition had gone and recognized the opportunity to shape the conversation going forward. As it stands, that opportunity is lost. Instead, she will be left holding the bag while Gentry and Pinkston try to shove the cats in.
Those cats – Frogge, Speering, and Bush – are not going to suddenly come to the conclusion that all their research, all their conversations, all the experiences they have had, have led them to the wrong conclusions. Whether people are publicly ready to admit it or not, the Joseph tenure is done, gone, toast, fried, over, and out. Despite all the initial promises, Dr. Joseph has failed to exceed expectations through his own inability to lead.
The only things remaining in question are a) How long is this going to limp on?, and b) How ugly is it going to get? Gentry’s election yesterday made possible the exceeding of expectations on both of those counts.
Hell, we didn’t even get through last night’s board meeting without a preview of what to expect. Gentry seconded her own nomination as chair and then moved for the passing of a contract for a company she’s employed by. Luckily, Speering pointed out to her that instead of leading the motion, she should be recusing herself from the vote. There will be plenty more of that in the future.
My prayer is that teachers and families don’t read too much into last night’s vote and become disillusioned. Disillusionment leads to departure, and MNPS can’t take many more departures. We need each and every one of you and appreciate your dedication to the district.
Last night after the board meeting, on Twitter, I laid Pinkston’s bad behavior at the feet of his employer, gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen. Some people took exception to that. But I remain unapologetic.
Nobody is willing to hold Pinkston accountable, and therefore he operates on his agenda, unencumbered. Bredesen continues to employ him despite his lack of character and actions that are detrimental to the families of MNPS. I was always told that you judge a person by their actions and the company they keep. I’m just employing that lesson here.
Bredesen supporters argue that he is an honorable man, much different than Pinkston. They also argue that Bredesen’s opponent Marsha Blackburn is even more morally bankrupt than Pinkston, and that the people she employs make him look like a Boy Scout. They further claim that she considers poor people and people of color as lesser humans and worthy only of the charity of their choice rather than the guidance and assistance of government.
To those folks, I ask that you consider these counter arguments. If I have a neighbor who owns a vicious dog that gets out and bites my kids once a week, do I refer to him as a great neighbor because he waves at me in the morning and occasionally shares his beer with me?
Do I say he’s a great neighbor because the guy who almost moved in had a dog that got out and bit my kids twice a week? After all, everybody knows getting bit once a week is better than getting bit twice a week. But how about not getting bit at all? That would be a good neighbor.
I agree that Blackburn’s views on diversity are very dissimilar from mine, but what is this current administration in MNPS doing for children of color? In her Facebook post, Pupo-Walker says, “I believe that our focus and priority should be on student achievement and success, and that all other facets of the operation of this district, whether they are the creation of a budget, of our HR practices, or our operational functions or curricular decisions, or the evaluation of our Director of Schools, should always be judged by how they will impact student success.”
That’s exactly what I’m doing, and her vote, along with Pinkston’s, is supporting the giving of cover to an administration that routinely pushes policy that hurts student achievement, specifically that of children of color. The ending of the literacy partnership with Lipscomb, the promoting of unqualified leadership to the number two position in the EL department, the discontinuation of the use of the multi-screener for gifted children, the discontinuation of reading clinics and Reading Recovery sans a viable alternative, the increased use of scripted curriculum, and the near elimination of the district’s payment of testing fees for advanced academics are all examples of policies that negatively impact student achievement for children of color.
Going back to Bredesen, based on his operative’s actions and policy supports, what evidence do I have that he would do right by poor and minority families? Perhaps he could demonstrate his intent by holding his employees to the same high standard that I expect from him. Why is that an unreasonable demand?
As previously stated, the only one who can hold Pinkston accountable is Bredesen. The only means I have to pressure Bredesen to hold Pinkston accountable is my vote. If everybody does the right thing, it’s not a problem. Or should I go to the families of those children who MNPS is chronically underserving and say just wait until Bredesen gets elected and things will get better? After that, Pinkston will put his focus back on your schools and Bredesen will help you out?
We keep making allowances for the “greater good,” but that greater good never shows up. We give away private land to corporations, housing costs continue to rise, wages remain stagnant, and our education system continues to disintegrate. When is the greater good showing up? Sometimes you just have to put up your hands and fight using what you have available.
It’s also been pointed out by charter school parents that charter school families have been in the same position as the parents who petitioned for Dr. Joseph’s removal. They, too, fought hard to be heard and respected. I can’t disagree, and perhaps it is time for the board to honor that tenet for all parents. Three years into Dr. Joseph’s tenure and only 3 out of 12 clusters have parent advisory committees up and running. Not exactly an indication of priority, is it?
One more apology I need to hand out. I owe it to Rachael Anne Elrod. My belief that she would be unduly influenced by Pinkston proved to be unfounded. For that, I apologize.
I ran for school board based on a belief that we are a district in crisis, and I believe that today more than ever. Change is coming, no matter how painful it may be. Those board members who voted for Gentry – Pinkston, Walker, Shepherd, and Buggs – will undoubtedly find themselves on the wrong side of history and will have to carry their actions as the brunt of their legacy. Leadership is not just judged by the actions they take, but also the ones they failed to take.
Below is a picture of the recently demolished old Tusculum Elementary School building. I pass it every day and say a silent prayer that champions for MNPS families, teachers, and students will step forward before this becomes a representation of the entire district. The decision is ours. Just how far gone are we going to let this thing go? It’s up to you. When nothing changes, nothing changes.
Nashville parent David Jones is currently helping parents, teachers, and community members organize their voices in helping to shape the discussion. If you have an opinion and are unsure of how to harness its power, I encourage you to reach out to him. His email is email@example.com.