EQUITY MEANS EVERYONE IS HELD ACCOUNTABLE

“I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”
Leonard Cohen

“For a detective or street police, the only real satisfaction is the work itself; when a cop spends more and more time getting aggravated with the details, he’s finished. The attitude of co-workers, the indifference of superiors, the poor quality of the equipment – all of it pales if you still love the job; all of it matters if you don’t.”
David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

 

Imagine with me, if you will, 2 years in the future. Mike Vrabel is still the coach of the Tennessee Titans, but the team has failed to make the playoffs the last two years and it looks like they’ll fall short again. The team’s offense has been horrific. The press has written about it, the players have spoken of its shortcomings, and the fans are livid.

A press conference is held and Vrabel gives a brief overview and a few platitudes and then turns over the conference to his offensive coordinator. The first words out of the coordinator’s mouth are, “Well you know the Titans had a hard time scoring touchdowns under Mularkey as well and the owner hasn’t invested enough money recently either. Other teams have an average payroll of 200 million and ours is only 160 million.”

He then proceeds to explain how the wide receivers aren’t really as good as what other teams have and the offensive line was old when he got here. He plans to draft some young talent next year that will be able to do things that, well, this teams offensive line has never been able to do, but we have no clue what the plan is for the season in progress. He doesn’t explain what those “things” are either, we’re just left to assume that he means “things” that will lead to more touchdowns.

During his brief presentation, the coordinator is continually thin on details, nor does he offer any explanation why he hasn’t already made the improvements that are clearly needed, only that they’ve been very busy with other things. No explanation of what those other things are, just that they’ve been busy.

Furthermore, there is no mention of the quarterback coach despite ample documentation that the person in that position plays a huge role in the team’s problems. The QB is seldom prepared, the game film consistently fails to be properly analyzed, and the QB coach regularly alienates the receivers and running backs to the point that they are rarely on the same page as the QB. The situation is so bad that players have taken to the press to complain about the QB coach.

After the OC’s presentation, the press is then invited to ask questions. Needless to say, the questioning is aggressive, because the team has been continually underperforming for a number of years and patience is thin. One reporter attributes the lack of success to laziness in conditioning, preparation, and play calling. The GM, John Robinson, leaps to his feet and calls foul.

He then proceeds to tell the OC that he doesn’t have to take this kind of attack. The Titans are in the solution business and they’ll only be listening to solution based questions. One of the other reporters then stands up and before asking their question, apologizes for the other reporter’s question. The press conference wraps up with no real solutions and everybody files out.

How do you think the aftermath of that press conference would play out?

I’d put even money down that the coordinator would be fired. Vrabel would come under increased pressure and quite possibly terminated. Robinson would be torched for insinuating that the OC didn’t have to take legitimate criticism and the Titan’s as an organization would be laughed out of the room.

Yet, the aforementioned scenario is basically what we witnessed at yesterday’s board work session around the recently released Bone, McAllester, Norton HR audit. An audit that includes the following key findings,

  • Lawyers discovered widespread concern about certain favored employees getting paid more than the board-approved pay scales. That has been an on-going complaint since Joseph took over in July 2016. “For example, several principals indicated that while they were at the very top of the pay scale for principals based on their education and experience, there were other principals with less experience and less education whose salary was higher than that provided by the same pay scale.” The report recommends an audit to fix any discrepancies.
  • Several teachers and other certificated employees were placed on administrative leave with pay for months while the district investigated misconduct allegations. “For example, in at least one case, a teacher was placed on administrative leave for a period in excess of six months only to receive a suspension of three days. During this time, the teacher left Nashville while on administrative leave and it was almost impossible for the MNPS to make contact with the teacher to advise him of his three-day suspension as a result of the investigation. In essence, the employee received a paid vacation in excess of six months.”
  • The Bone report recommends that the district consider suspending employees without pay while under investigation. “If the employee is later cleared, he or she should be paid their full salary for the time of the suspension.”
  • Principals and community superintendents suggested that “under the new administration, the hiring process has been complicated to the point that well-qualified teacher applicants do not take jobs with MNPS because of delays caused by the Human Resources Department.” They “described situations where a principal made a recommendation to hire a prospective employee to the Human Resources Department, but no offer was made for several days and sometimes weeks. In the meantime, the prospective employee accepted a job with another school system despite the fact that an offer by the MNPS principal was intended to go out earlier.”
  • Only two Human Resources employees have been assigned to process new hires, even during the busy summer months when the majority of hiring takes place. “Rather than assigning other current employees to help with these tasks, it was decided that only two employees would be responsible. Despite the backlog that was created by this decision, at least one of the employees responsible was allowed to take a substantial vacation during this period without any coverage provided by the supervisors.”

The report singles out the district’s executive director of human resources for talent strategy.

“The employee’s background is not in the education arena, and the employees training and communication with subordinates is ineffective,” the report says.

“With such a consistent alarm about this individual, we believe MNPS would be remiss if it fails to address this matter.

“Reluctantly, and with consideration and due respect for this person, to cure the lack of morale, feeling of helplessness and lack of communication, we would recommend that Dr. Joseph either terminate this employee or send this employee for further training to ensure that the employee’s communications skills and ability to work well with others improves.”

This report comes not from the press or another organization that has a history of being critical of MNPS, but rather from a law firm closely aligned with Mayor Briley – an ardent Joseph supporter – and commissioned by the board at a cost of 100K. An audit that was described at the time of commission thus,

“We are not doing an investigation,” Joseph said. “We are looking at processes … We are looking at cases completed — if they were done appropriately, the best practices and a look over policies.”

No telling what would have turned up in the event of an actual investigation. But if the intent was purported to look at processes and evaluate if they were done appropriately, why downplay the findings? As I’m sure many of us have asked many of our friends on many an occasion, “Why ask for my advice if you are only going  to ignore it?”

In all fairness, the report has not been officially declared public information. Therefore the scope of questioning by the board at last night’s session was very limited. I believe that is by intentional design, not by the board but rather district leadership. Failure to release the report prevents full public examination and gives plausible deniability to those culpable for the shortcomings.

Both HR Chief Deborah Story and Dr. Joseph have offered defenses based on them not having seen the whole report. Though Dr. Joseph had seen enough of the report to join with board leadership in meeting with the HR department and delivering a joint pep talk last Friday before he and Board Chair Gentry jettisoned off to Cali to present at a conference on the robust tool that MNPS has created in regard to the director performance evaluation. A tool that has failed to produce a report nearly 30 days after it was due. I know you can’t make this stuff up, but hopefully, Gentry briefed Joseph a little more fully while they were out in the Golden State.

Continuing with the review of last night, channeling  Sunday’s Oscar presentation, board member Will Pinkston delivered a performance worthy of future Oscar consideration. He began his tour de force by apologizing to Dr. Joseph for hiring and paying him an exorbitant salary for such a difficult job.

“Dr. Joseph, I would want to, I guess, apologize, for lack of a better word,” Pinkston said. “You walked into a god-awful mess.”

Of course, Pinkston failed to admit that he sat in a position of oversight of that “god-awful” mess and that it cost the previous director his job, as it should probably cost Joseph and eventually Pinkston. He then proceeded to beat his favorite drum that the district is underfunded. It should be noted that funding never caused him to lower his expectations for previous directors. It should also be noted that Pinkston has been in a position to advocate for increased funding for the last 6 years. That the district is not in better financial shape is another loss on his scorecard.

Pinkston based his apology on a 2016 report produced by Great City Schools that illustrated HR shortcomings. Apparently the board never adequately shared that document with Joseph. Ok, lets put some ownership on Pinkston’s shoulders. He apparently read the report. He was aware of how bad it was. How come he never circled back around with Dr. Joseph to check on progress? All those lonely nights on the road with the Bredesen campaign and he never once thought, “You know I ought to call Dr. J about that awful HR report.” Maybe that’s what his apology is about, in that case, it’s not Dr. Joseph that he owes an apology to, but rather all those that voted for him under the misguided belief that he would devote as much energy to his office as he did to his personal ambitions.

Pinkston doesn’t get all the blame though. Michael Casserly, the Chief of Great City Schools has had his head buried up Joseph’s skirt since his arrival – serving on the transition team, writing glowing reviews about the evaluation tool, serving as his head cheerleader – yet the public is supposed to believe that he never once in the last three years mentioned that scathing report delivered shortly before Joseph’s arrival. None of this passes the smell test.

Kudos to board member Gini Pupo-Walker, who reacted to the introduction of the Great City Schools report into the conversation by pointing out that the GCS report offered 21 recommendations and so she’d like to hear which recommendations Story’s department had moved on. Story quickly shifted to the defense that the HR department had been focusing on the transition teams report, but offered no areas in which improvements have been made based on that report either. In fact, there are several assertions from the transition team report that are echoed in the Bone, McAllester, Norton report and as such remain unfixed.

During the presentation Dr. Joseph alluded to cutting central office staff and thus forcing fewer people to assume more responsibilities. He cited this as a root of pay discrepancies. Apparently, we also need another audit/investigation into compensation. I tell you, MNPS is doing economic wonders for the legal business and the audit business. It is almost like our motto is “No auditor or no attorney left behind.”

This argument is not congruent with recent findings from an audit by Metro Government Nashville released last August. That audit pointed out that while MNPS had no means to separate “Central Office” positions, Metro Nashville Public Schools Chief Human Resources Officer – which would be Story – provided her determination of the breakdown of actual filled positions in the “central office,” excluding the positions for centralized services and schools. Based on her count, 2016 to 2017 numbers had decreased by nine positions, but in 2017 – 2018 the number had grown by 26.

Prior to the board meeting, in an Advocacy Committee meeting, MNPS government liason Mark North made an assertion that Central Office spending only accounted for 3% of the entire budget and showed through comparison that it was lower than other government entities. This would indicate that Mr. North has discovered a means to designate central office employees and expenditure where previously the district had none. In truth, his assertion is based on his analysis, one that he freely admits is subjective. I’ll let you decide on its accuracy.

 

In another curious exchange, Walker asked about last years reduction in HR staff. Story cited 3 senior leadership positions being cut. A quick look at this year’s budget brings that narrative into question. There is a reduction of 1.5 positions in 2017/18 but no reduction in 2018/19. I can only assume therefore that she is referring to Vanessa Garcia, Terry Schrader, and Craig Ott. Which opens a whole another can of worms which we will discuss at a later date.

The last board member to weigh in on the presentation was Fran Bush, who opened her remarks with, “I’m going to be awhile.” She then proceeds to lay out her belief that despite the teacher town hall held earlier in the week by New’s Channel 5’s Phil Williams and it’s disturbing revelations, “We still were not listening to our teachers and our parents.”

In a bow to the seriousness of the BMN report and those town hall meetings, Bush didn’t mince words. She laid it on the line that she considered the HR departments work unacceptable and attributed much of the department’s failings to “laziness”. Dr. Gentry quickly leaped to the defense of Story and her department, going as far to inform Story that she didn’t have to remain at the podium and listen to Bush’s criticism rooted in the evidence presented in the HR audit. Somehow demanding that parents and teachers be heard and listened to has become deemed offensive.

Board member Walker spoke up shortly thereafter and offered an apology for her fellow board member. She reminded board members that their behavior should serve as a model for students and district employees, going as far to say that if a teacher ever spoke to her child in the manner Bush addressed Story, she would take exception to that teacher.

To me, that is the problem with the district in a nutshell. If my child was producing work of the level being produced by MNPS’s HR department, I would hope that somebody would speak to them as frankly as Bush spoke to Story. Not offending people has taken precedence over demanding and producing excellence. What’s more offensive to me is that the HR department has to be told they can’t post it notes or utilize handwritten investigation notes. That they consider adding a checklist of documents to each investigation file a sign of making an improvement. These are basic HR 101 tenets that MNPS is failing to adhere to. That’s not a money issue, that’s a professional issue and not be acceptable practice from people who are making six figures a year.

I appreciate Walker’s desire to not publicly question people’s integrity – though I’m not sure that was what was happening – however, they are all adults with very heavy responsibilities for which they are highly compensated. Combined HR leadership salaries total just south of half a million dollars. With great reward comes great responsibility.

Imagine if your child brought home a report card that reflected the level of performance revealed in the HR audit. Then imagine that your spouse started off the conversation by apologizing for putting them in such a difficult situation and when you started addressing your child’s performance, and possible causes for the deficiencies, your spouse dismissed them from the room. You would hit the roof. And the same should apply here. This is not exceeding expectations in any way shape or form. We need to decide if that motto is just words or a reflection of our true intentions. We should follow Fran Bush’s lead and all be unapologetic when it comes to our passion for our students and our teachers.

Local education blogger Vesia Hawkins recently wrote an excellent piece comparing educational expectations to sports expectation where she asked can we talk education like we talk football.

I’m seriously considering running the risk of getting cursed out and told to mind my own business by starting a “football talk” about our education system and what it can mean for their child. A simple accountability pep talk rooted in love but shed of aimless language too measly to point fingers or create a sense of urgency.

Yeah, that talk. Because that’s how we win the big game of life.

I wholeheartedly concur. Let’s approach yesterdays board work session like we would if it was a Titan press conference. Let’s put the same kind of pressure on MNPS leaders as we would Titan’s leadership. We’d expect Titans coaches to be tough enough to handle harsh assessments, why do we not have the same expectations of our district leaders? We expect football coaches to have consequences when they fail to live up to expectations, why should local education leaders be any different?

In sports, it is widely accepted that underperformance often results in a leadership change. Don’t win and you lose your job. Fail to meet expectations and you are replaced. I don’t understand why the same shouldn’t hold true in public education.

Now is the time to contact your board members and let them know your feelings on the current state of affairs. Maybe you are all right with the way things are going, maybe you are not, but if you don’t tell them, the board will never know. So let them know.

 

 

5 thoughts

  1. Forget the sports metaphors, let’s compare how Gentry and Joseph want Central Office staff to be treated to how teachers are treated.

    In the past year I have heard Dr. Joseph say repeatedly teachers lack capacity, compare them to fight spectators out for blood, low performance and poor behavior are a result of novice teachers inability to manage and teach, most problems are fabricated social media buzz. He has no problem holding teachers accountable and even, in my opinion, blaming teachers. Isn’t his job to help teachers find solutions that help students?

    Here is my metaphor. I work for the postal service. My route pay is determined by several factors. The most basic is letter and package volume, but because all mailboxes are not the same I do get extra “credit” for the size and weight of packages, and the type of mailbox, and distance between them. In essence there is a complex formula that determines the pay for my route, and the expected time it should take me to complete it. So a route that serves mailboxes close together (say apartment complexes) with mostly letters would be less work than a business route with heavy package, large mail volume, and distance between stops.

    The same is true for teacher’s classrooms: students with behavior, IEPs, trauma, learning difficulties, low socioeconomic status, English Language Learners, and tier II and tier III needs. Yet we treat all classrooms as equal. Pile the kids in as if all are exactly the same workload, and hold teachers accountable for progress. MNPS teachers, especially in the priority schools, have the business routes, yet are held accountable to the same number of students, and same standard of education as the apartment complex route.

    Our system has school based budgeting that is similar to this approach, but I would argue in many schools this does not translate to classroom time. MTSS is a level of service, not a time of day. It is an issue largely ignored by the board and administrators that are no longer directly responsible for the day to day growth of students.

    Consider:

    Teacher A: 19 students – 4 with functional behavioral plans, 6 with IEPs- 2 gifted, 6 ELL, and 10 students in Tier II and 4 in tier III. Average evaluation score- 3

    Teacher B: 24 students- 1- functional behavior plan, 3 IEPs(one gifted), 2 ELL, 2 students tier III, 6 students in tier II – Average evaluation score- 5

    The weight of these students is not by count alone. The student with labels require a greater amount of teacher time. The level of work required by teacher A is far greater than with teacher B. Teacher A needs greater support to be successful than teacher B, even though her count is higher. This is true regardless of her efficacy. This has nothing to do with her capacity (ability) to serve her students. It has much more to do with the support she is given to move these students. We have so many Teacher B’s in the highest need schools that no longer have support yet are being evaluated alongside teachers in other places with less to handle. I become angry when we blame the people doing the good work everyday, and I don’t see Dr. Joseph or Dr. Gentry defending these teachers like they defend the HR department. That is the real problem. The cutting of positions that work with children is the problem. If the need for teachers was determined more like the postal service , and less by head count alone systemic change begins to be possible. RTI is expensive only because well trained people are expensive, and the needed level of service is expensive. ICU care is substantially more expensive than a PCP visit, because more people are needed to deliver that level of service. No matter the program, results will be impacted to the quality of service provided, and level of care based on need. Quality of service is directly impacted by number of people providing it.

    Just like HR… but Dr. Gentry nods along when Dr. Joseph says that teachers lack capacity.

  2. Nashville is becoming a national disgrace at the hands of Shawn Joseph on Gentry’s watch. As a freshman board member Fran Bush shouldn’t be the voice of reason but she is. Pupo-walker apologizing for her is laughable. Would Pupo-walker apologized for Gentry like that? By the way HR is apathetic. Would that word have been more embraced than lazy? If he’s not gone soon we will have hundreds and possibly thousands of unfilled vacancies come August. Teachers have more choices now than ever. They won’t choose Shawn Joseph. Why would Buggs, Gentry, & Pinkston?

  3. Pinkston wants Nashville’s narrative to pull together around the problem of funding. The old money crowd isn’t buying it at this point and the state as a whole isn’t either. And political history as well as our current growth charter path suggests a major uphill battle. Revisionist history indeed. You can’t get back the wasted money and wasted years of poor initiatives (this director and prior ones). You have to work with the team you have. Pinkston isn’t working to do that. He’s not even trying to make a good trade under the deadline (ie upgrade certain positions like Pertiller). He’s trying the change the draft rules and salary caps. It’s an admirable long game. But the league owners aren’t going to bite anytime soon. If anyone thinks Pinkston’s idea is EVER going to take our 7-9 team to being an 11-5 team within even five years…. they are dreaming. We might get a down payment in 2020-21 with a new mayor and a tax increase but that’s going be after all the free agents leave and that new money will just be to keep us from dropping to 4-12.

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