IS THIS THE SWAN SONG?

“That’s the thing about later. You don’t know what’s coming up. You don’t know how all the loose ends are going to gather together. Something for sure is going to happen but you don’t know what it is.”
Sam Shepard, Spy of the First Person

“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.”
Jim Morrison

 

Whoa, Nelly! But a lot can happen in just a couple of days. The beginning of this week produced a flurry of activity, but what does it all mean? Let’s see if we can’t put it all in some kind of order and decipher some things.

LOCAL BEAT

Phil Williams continued his in-depth coverage of MNPS on Monday with a story about the evaluation of director of schools Shawn Joseph by the MNPS School Board. The results were not very good. Per News Channel 5’s report,

Six of nine board members said Joseph was failing to meet expectations on showing “overall positive gains in school climate and culture,” failing to meet expectations on “ensuring that employee morale and satisfaction are increasing,” failing to meet expectations on “ensuring compliance with all legal and regulatory requirements,” and failing to meet expectations on “effective public relations.”

The Tennessean was a little more generous with their coverage. While pointing out his low scores, “Joseph got the lowest mark, a 1.7 average rating, for ensuring that students are achieving academic growth in reading and math and closing the achievement gap among minority students”, they also chose to focus on board relationships. Per the Tennessean here is Joseph’s individual scores,

  • Ensuring that a higher percentage of third-graders are reading at grade level:  2.3
  • Ensuring that classroom attendance is improving and truancy is decreasing: 2.4
  • Ensuring that the district is demonstrating overall positive gains in school climate and culture: 2.0
  • Ensuring that student suspensions and expulsions are decreasing: 2.7
  • Ensuring that employee morale and satisfaction are increasing: 2.0
  • Ensuring that the district is recruiting and retaining effective teachers: 2.3
  • Ensuring compliance with all legal and regulatory requirements: 2.0

NPR Nashville chimed in with a sit down with Dr. Joseph in which he downplayed the recent scathing HR Audit by local law firm Bone, McAllester, Norton. He is quoted as saying,

“Yea, so there are complex situations. The human resources report that was just submitted found that our human resources department did not have any egregious errors in how they investigated and ultimately came to a determination,” 

NPR does follow up and note that the report also recommended that the executive director of the human resources department be fired or receive additional training. Last I checked, a lack of egregious errors and recommendations for leadership termination don’t go hand in hand.

Channel 4 also weighed in with their take on Dr. Joseph and his performance. In their report, Dr. Joseph is quoted in response to questions about his evaluation as saying,

“I think the areas where we’ve been able to resource and focus on, we’re getting results. The areas where we have not been able to resource towards or focus on, we’re stagnant. And as a collective board and administration, we’ll come together, and we’ll do what’s right for our kids.”

In perusing the media coverage and in reading board member’s individual reviews – 030119 Individual Ratings – MNPS Formative Evaluation – some common threads emerge. Dr. Joseph’s defense is rooted in the problem’s left from previous administrations, lack of funding, and racism, not on his own lack of action. As he says in the NPR article,

“All leadership is based upon context, so the fact that I am a young African-American in a leadership role situates a context for how I do my work,”

Board Member Pinkston in his evaluation puts it even more succinctly,

Without question, the most significant accomplishment during the first half of the school year was Dr. Joseph’s continued push toward equity vis a vis the student-based budget. Through this process, he has been subjected to untold and unfair slings and arrows from self-centered West Nashville parents and principals who have no appreciation or understanding of the problems facing our inner-city schools
in East and North Nashville or our high-concentration EL schools in South and Southeast Nashville. Everyone wants the best for their own students and schools, but very few people — except Dr. Joseph and his team — are willing to acknowledge the deep and long-standing inequities that exist in this school system.
While I don’t downplay that race plays a role for some in the evaluation of Dr. Joseph’s performance, I also believe that he has continually used race to deflect from his policy implementation shortcomings and leadership deficiencies. Shortcomings and deficiencies that are highlighted in the board evaluations and led to a composite score of 1.7 when it comes to closing the achievement gap among minority students. As board member Rachael Elrod notes,
We continue to see small differences in achievement. Both our Bl ack and Hispanic students are scoring
the lowest, below the 25% percentile in both Reading and Mathematics achievement. According to the State Report Card, our Black students got a 16.9% and Hispanic students got a 24.5% achievement rate in Mathematics in comparison to our district average of 33%. Black students got an 18% and Hispanic students got a 22.1% achievement rate in English Language Arts in comparison to our district average of 32.8%.
In her remarks in regard to Dr. Joseph’s accomplishments this past year, Board Chair Sharon Gentry cites, “bringing leadership into the district that is more reflective of the population that we are charged to serve.” While I certainly applaud the increase in diversity, this comment begs the question of whether the make-up of district employees should reflect the demographics of MNPS students or of the city of Nashville itself? And is not MNPS charged with serving all of Nashville?
I very much appreciate the thoughtfulness of board members, Walker, Eldrod, Frogge, Bush, Speering, and Shepherd put into their evaluations. All of their conclusions do not align with mine and I would encourage them to look deeper into the data and not just accept what was given them by the MNPS leadership team, but it is clear that they took their responsibility very seriously and that they spent a great deal of time crafting their evaluations.
One area that I would offer caution on is teacher dissatisfaction. The majority of the board member’s reduced that dissatisfaction to a compensation issue. With Pinkston attempting to dismiss widespread dissatisfaction outright,
I appreciate the input by employee groups including MNEA and SEIU, which have repeatedly confirmed that there is no systemic dissatisfaction but rather there are isolated problems that need to be dealt with. I fully believe that much of the current discontent is entangled with understandable employee unhappiness and concern about economic pressures stemming from historically low compensation and the rapidly rising cost of living in Nashville.
First off, if employee representation is downplaying employee dissatisfaction, I would question who they are representing. Secondly, while certainly, a substantial contributor, the fissures with teachers run much deeper than merely a lack of competitive compensation. A discipline policy that robs them and students of valuable instructional time, poor district leadership communication, a perceived lack of respect for teachers by Dr. Joseph and his team, and the increased use of scripted lesson plans are all contributing factors as well, and as such need to be addressed. Just giving teachers a little more money ain’t going to solve the issue.
When you do the math, a 3% raise for a teacher making 50k a year translates into about $57 a paycheck before taxes. Let’s hope insurance costs don’t go up again because if they do, it becomes a wash.
Returning to the evaluations, through all of them the specter of MNPS as an underfunded district is raised. The argument presented is that if Dr. Joseph had greater resources, the district would see greater gains and he would receive a better evaluation. In other words, the district is currently letting Dr. Joseph down, not the other way around.
In some ways, that is a fair argument, but it’s worth noting that teachers have been under-resourced for decades and we’ve never accepted that as an excuse for a lack of meaningful progress by students for them. Administrators need to be held to the same standards.
Which brings me to yesterday’s budget release. Coming on the heels of the just-released performance review, I expected that a budget would be released that strengthened the argument that Dr. Joseph was leading an underfunded district. I anticipated a budget that hovered around a billion dollars and included funds to fix the pay schedule, address lack of supports in schools in order to strengthen the discipline policy, substantial investment in the HR department in order to improve processes, further investment in SEL, as well as a substantial raise – 5% would be a starting point – for employees.
Sure people would have blanched at the thought of a billion dollar budget, but they shouldn’t be surprised because the message delivered all year-long has been that of a dramatically underfunded district. Such an ask would shift the conversation away from the director’s performance and on to the shoulders of the citizen’s of Nashville. Such a budget would also send a message of commitment to Nashville students and attacking the systematic problems that hinder their performance. The argument becomes, that at the current level of funding, no director could be successful and therefore Nashville has to decide if THEY are ready to step up to the plate or not. A billion dollar budget would signify a much-needed commitment to a theme of exceeding expectations and systematic excellence.
All in all, not a bad strategy. But that’s not what we got. Instead, the Director delivered what can only be described as a “status quo” budget, or worse. A budget that asks for only an additional $31 million from last year. In looking at the proposed budget, the first question that comes to mind is how does this budget ensure that next years outcomes will be any different than this year’s outcomes?
A 3% raise for teachers is going to change the conversation? A raise for bus drivers of one dollar an hour while certainly needed is not exactly bold.  $2.75 million for textbooks is going be a difference maker? $1.4 million for pre-k continuation is going to drastically change things? $1.49 million for an HR systems upgrade…wait a minute…I thought this was already being implemented. Are we once again implementing first and then looking for financing?
Equally interesting is what’s being cut from the budget. Two EDSSI principal positions are being done away with in this year’s budget proposal. You have to remember that initially there was supposed to be a EDSSI for every cluster, with the priority schools moving back under their cluster umbrella and being called L5 schools. The state said not so fast, those are state-designated “priority schools” and as such need to be under their own umbrella, thus necessitating 13 EDSSIs. There was not enough funding for the 13th, so MNPS made the priority school director a defacto EDSSI and kept the number at 12. Now we are going to 10.
Also on the chopping block is the position of Executive Director of Equity and Diversity.  A position held by Maritza Gonzales, aka Sito Narcisse’s wife. Gonzales’s position and salary have long been a bone of contention throughout the district, with Dr. Joseph refusing to budge on it. So why now in the last year of his contract? Has he found outside funding for the department of equity and diversity like for the charter school department? And where is Gonzales going? Very peculiar.
It’ll be interesting to see how board members receive this budget and if it influences their vote on a contract extension for Joseph later this month. In an op-ed published in the Tennessean yesterday, board member Will Pinkston writes,

I’ve worked in or around federal, state and local government for 25 years. One thing I’ve learned, with certainty: In big bureaucracies, the mark of leadership is not if problems happen. They always do. Rather, the mark of leadership is whether problems are confronted when they arise.

In my experience as a Nashville School Board member, Dr. Shawn Joseph does not shy away from problems. Unlike the previous director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, Joseph is accepting of scrutiny and he invites it.

I challenge Mr. Pinkston to show me where in next years proposed budget Dr. Joseph is facing problems head-on? Where is he inviting scrutiny? All year long we hear how MNPS is crippled by being under-resourced, yet when it comes time to have that conversation in earnest, the best that can be offered is a shortcoming of 3%.

If a director is failing to score a minimum of a 3 on their evaluation and offering a lack of resources as an excuse, I would expect that a budget showing an increase of at minimum 15% could be expected. Why would you proceed into another year with the same resources when you already know that it’s not enough? Do you think that if the Patriots don’t give Tom Brady the receivers he needs, he never says anything? That he just heads into the next season hoping for a miracle.

And perhaps the city can’t afford such a required budget, but you better at least be able to justify why you are continually crying chronic underfunding. Now is the time to force the city into at least having the conversation, but they won’t if you can’t lay out a clear picture of what’s needed. Pinkston likes to label opponents as intellectually dishonest, based on this budget, and the fact that he is budget chair,  I would label him an intellectual coward.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two other points from Pinkston’s sloppily written and factually challenged op-ed piece. Small wonder he is an ex-journalist. In it he says,

Joseph’s critics are intent on castigating him over issues like moving too slowly in costly efforts to remediate drinking-fountain water in a school system plagued by decades of crumbling infrastructure.

Is that really a counterpoint that Pinkston wants to make? That we should give Joseph a break because ceasing the poisoning of our kids is an old problem and costly. What’re a few more years of drinking lead infused water? So what if some of those same kids already have environment-related learning disabilities?

The other point is that Pinkston continually attempts to draw a line for Dr. Joseph from Montgomery County Public Schools to Nashville without going through Seaford, Delaware and Prince George County Schools. That’s a disingenuous narrative and intellectually dishonest.

PGCS and MCPS are completely different situations. MCPS is traditionally a much higher performing district. Joseph was in senior leadership at PGCS. In MCPS he oversaw just 32 of 206 schools. Big difference.

Principals also received their site budgets yesterday. Per pupil funding has dropped 39 dollars per student, from $5866 to $5827. Couple that with rising position costs and that translates to… if you like this years staff, you may not be able to keep this years staff.

For example on the position costs,

  • $900 more per teacher
  • $5800 more per AP
  • $1300 more per secretary.

Keep in mind higher position costs work to the advantage of the district and not the individual schools.

That vaunted reallocation of Title 1 monies that Dr. J has spent the year bragging about? Not this year. If over 40% – a lower percentage then it was in previous years when the cutoff point was 50% before Dr. Joseph tried unsuccessfully to raise it to 70% – of your kids are certified as being economically disadvantaged you’re getting title 1 money under the same funding formula as last year. Keep in mind that by lowering the cut off number you put more people in a pool that hasn’t necessarily grown in dollars, which potentially could mean less money for certain schools.

The more I look at this proposed budget the more it looks like a place holder budget. A budget designed by people who know they are out the door and so they won’t have to deal with next years implications. It deals with none of the issues raised in the HR audit and it addresses none of the issues raised in the individual board evaluations. In fact, it completely undercuts the argument that MNPS is an underfunded district because it fails to offer specifics were increased funding would lead to better outcomes.

Now Dr. Joseph may argue that internally they are moving money around and shifting priorities to address those aforementioned issues, but if that is the case, then once again you are undercutting the underfunded school district argument. We weren’t underfunded this year, money was just allocated…incorrectly.

This budget is going to require more analyzation, hopefully, I’m missing something. As much as I am ready to see Dr. Joseph’s tenure come to an end, the students and teachers of MNPS deserve better. If we are truly a grossly underfunded district then we need a budget that addresses those inadequacies head-on. We don’t need a budget that just provides for more of the same outcomes. This is not the budget that Nashville needs right now unless next year is indeed going to be the year of leadership transition. If that’s the case, let’s get to it.

7 thoughts

  1. You might be forgetting how Joseph was run out of one of his previous jobs. Failing to pass his outrageously large budget increase request in that district led to his ouster. This budget hedges his bets for the future. That’s all. See, I saved you like 2000 words.

  2. Ok lemme see if I have got it right

    For parents no real assurance Mnps is calibrating resources to places&issues that need it

    But did cut some millions of bucks they could have cut earlier on

    And this lets there be a token raise but hey better than nothin to tread water and not lose even more ground to counties

    Except if you are an asst princ you get a very fat raise don’t want them to get stolen away

    Sound like dodging a bullet of school closings to me

    Just wait a year the state will be coming for takeover of some schools then see how it plays

    You can say not bold enough true

    But this is probably the most mayor briley was willing to go for

  3. Convention ctr has 125 million surplus in one year and city employees including teachers get 3%?? Cmon Nashville

  4. the ‘new HR system’ MNPS is ‘investing in’? not their initiative. they don’t have a choice. they have to do it. General gov is migrating their system and MNPS uses it. don’t let them fool you into touting it as some sort of idea of theirs.

  5. What was that sound? Was it the sound of the HR dept taking a fall in exchange for a school member’s vote (or three) of confidence?

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