Today, MNPS Board member Amy Frogge posted a piece to her Facebook page calling out the way that Director of Schools Shawn Joseph conducts himself with women. It’s a powerful piece and one that I am sharing without permission because I believe the message is that vital. I also believe that it is important you understand the back story behind Frogge’s critical posts.
Shortly after becoming elected to the school board 6 years ago, Amy and I became friends. Our friendship grew out of our mutual love of public schools. Over the next 4 years, we worked together on a myriad of issues. Issues that took us from local schools to the courthouse to the state house and even national recognition. In those 4 years, I discovered a woman who is fiercely loyal to her family, committed to giving all kids a shot at a great education, courageous enough to always stand by her convictions, and committed to doing the research it takes to ensure that those convictions are rooted in the truth. One of my favorite conversations is the interview I conducted with her a few years ago.
The selection process that bought Dr. Joseph to Nashville, headed by then, and now-newly-re-elected, board chair Sharon Gentry, was dysfunctional at best. It proceeded with starts and stops, the first part ended in a scene right out of the movie Runaway Bride, outside interests were given way too much influence, and previously agreed upon procedures were disregarded at will. I remember offering Amy the cautionary advice that “Nothing that springs from corrupted ground will have the opportunity to grow uncorrupted.”
My advice was dismissed under a wave of optimism. Nobody was more optimistic than board member Amy Frogge. She was all in on the director of schools Shawn Joseph. The director’s family was not here for the first year of his tenure, and Frogge opened her home to him, often inviting him over to visit and socialize with her family and at community events. When questions were raised about the director’s decisions or practices, she staunchly defended him. In her eyes, we owed it to Dr. Joseph to give him every opportunity to succeed, even if it cost her personal friendships.
As that first year progressed, the friendship between Amy and I regressed. We went from talking three times a week to talking once a month. Where conversations had previously been filled with laughter and optimism, they grew terse and defensive. Amy’s husband Patrick, a man who I have deep respect for, and I ended up in a very heated conversation. We haven’t talked since, and I regret that.
Mine wasn’t the only relationship that suffered either. Other parent activists grew frustrated and became less involved. By the end of the first year of Joseph’s tenure, former supporters were openly asking on social media, “What the hell had happened to Frogge?” Amy remained staunch in her defense of the director though. Her commitment to our schools, and by de facto our director, superseded the need to be popular or appease friends. His missteps continued to be written off as rookie mistakes.
It wasn’t until this past budget season that Dr. Joseph let the mask slip and Frogge got a glimpse of what many of us have been seeing for a long time. The director’s words and his actions didn’t align. Even though she now realizes that she made a mistake, she could have easily remained silent and just continued to work against the director internally. She did try that for a little bit, but it was ineffective. And the evidence of the district heading in the wrong direction continued to mount, leaving Amy with few options.
Amy may deny this – but I know her well enough to know it’s true – the director could have fixed this at any time in the last 3 months. With a little introspection, a little humility, and a little cooperation, I firmly believe he could have, at least temporarily, brought her back into the fold. Unfortunately, someone must have once given Dr. Joseph the bad advice of “Never let them see you sweat.”
Nobody told him we like our leaders with a little more humanity. He has never made a serious attempt to repair the relationship with Amy. Instead, he has maintained a position that he is here to save a district that never asked for a savior, and we all will eventually acquiesce to his desires. It is a bad strategy headed for a bad outcome.
I think it is important that you know the back story so that when you read the words of Amy Frogge, you understand exactly what it took her to get to this point. For the first 18 months, she was fiercely loyal to Dr. Joseph. A loyalty that she didn’t surrender; rather it was a loyalty that was destroyed by the very person she bestowed it to. Her words aren’t written in anger or in a reactionary moment; rather they are words that have been mulled over and carefully chosen in order to fully impress upon people the severity of the current situation.
Once again, her position is coming with sacrifice. Former political allies quite frankly wish she’d shut up. Those whom she’s shown loyalty to for years suddenly seem incapable of reciprocation. I’m proud to have her as my friend. Hopefully, she considers me likewise, and I applaud her for always trying to do what she thinks is best. I hope that you read her words, and I hope those words lead you to action. Email your board members, write your council person, call the mayor.
Change is seldom easy and it’s often scary. It can also be exhilarating. We now know what we don’t want in a leader. We also have a greater appreciation of the people in the individual schools who care for our kids. Continuing on the same path will not lead to success. If you are honest with yourself, you know that.
Read the words of Amy Frogge and let them spur you to action:
Take a moment and watch this interaction between the Director of Schools Shawn Joseph and a female reporter. It’s important to note that this reporter was actually invited to the MNPS press conference, where she asked a perfectly reasonable (and pretty predictable) question: What would you tell the parents of children in priority schools?
Joseph is quick to put this female reporter in her place with a rude and unprofessional response. Rather than answering her question, he turns the tables on her, trying to bully her. After the press conference, Joseph’s fraternity brothers followed this reporter into the parking lot to harass her, telling her that her questioning of Joseph was not appropriate.
Joseph’s frat brothers had been asked to stack the press conference to show support for Joseph, lending a rather tone-deaf atmosphere to the event. Although the press conference was held to address the fact that the number of “failing” schools has more than doubled under Joseph’s watch, Joseph began the conference by saying, “Can I get an amen?!” The conference, which should have been quite serious, was strangely filled with cheers for Joseph himself. (Joseph, through fliers distributed with his photo on them, often requests that his frat brothers show up to board meetings and other events to cheer him on or to go after anyone who questions him.)
Certainly, people have bad days, and I would perhaps just disregard Joseph’s testy interaction with this reporter under another circumstance. But I have seen this sort of behavior repeatedly from our Director. While he can be very nice toward those to do not question him, he changes his demeanor toward those who raise questions about problems in the district. (It took me a long to time to see the problem, since I was very supportive of Joseph for the first year and a half of his tenure.) He particularly does not tolerate questions from females (no matter how professional or polite) and uses bullying tactics to avoid answering them. This sets a poor tone for the district, as it is his job to answer questions.
Joseph has tried to put me in my place (by threatening lawsuits, by telling me what I can and cannot say on the board floor and by inviting his frat brothers to meetings to call me out). He has tried to put Jill Speering in her place by cutting Reading Recovery (her favorite program that she championed for decades), thereby suddenly firing 87 Reading Recovery teachers, many of whom were Jill’s friends, with no plan in place to repurpose them. And Joseph is already starting to go after Fran Bush, the newest board member to question him. Joseph loves to use race as a weapon to protect himself, quickly labeling anyone who disagrees with him a “racist,” but I think he will find this tactic increasingly difficult to utilize as more begin to speak up.
This is the behavior of a bully, plain and simple. Joseph has banned employees from speaking to board members. And just yesterday, he actually banned employees from writing anything negative on social media about the district or its leadership. These are crazy times.
Since I have begun speaking up against problematic practices in the district, I have received hundreds of thank-yous from MNPS employees and parents, including flowers and gifts. Not a day goes by that I do not receive a call or message from a grateful employee. The usual message is: “We are hanging on by a thread. Please, please keep it up!” I have suggested that others must start using their own voices to address problems, but employees- and amazingly even parents- respond, “Oh, no- we know how vindictive he is!” Teachers, bus drivers, and other staff members know they will lose their jobs for voicing problems (they’ve seen what Joseph did with Reading Recovery as vengeance against Jill), and parents actually fear that Joseph will take funding from their schools or try to punish their children in some way if they speak up. Many are deeply afraid of being attacked along racial lines for voicing concerns; Joseph has done everything in his power to stir racial divides and anger in order to avoid being held accountable. Something is seriously wrong when we have arrived at this place.
Jill, Fran, and I am more than happy to keep standing up and to serve as a voice for the voiceless. I have stood up to bullies before; I have no fear and absolutely nothing to lose. I always outlast them. But for things to truly change, Jill, Fran and I cannot continue to be the only voices speaking for the community. We are doing all we can, but we need help. Please consider speaking up, even if you must remain anonymous and ask someone else to serve as your voice.