“The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.”
I awoke today in turmoil. Nearly 3 years ago the MNPS School Board unanimously voted to make Dr. Shawn Joseph the newest Director of Schools. The hiring came as the result of a search process that was…tumultuous…to say the least.
It was the second search after the first one ended with WCS Director Mike Looney turning the job down at the last-minute. The second search was paid for at the behest of board member Will Pinkston by the Nashville Public Education Foundation, arguably in order to avoid Sunshine Laws. When presented with the finalists, board member Amy Frogge brought up the lack of a woman finalists and fellow board member Jill Speering tried to add former Boston and Minneapolis Superintendent Carol Johnson into the mix, a move that earned both board members criticisms despite the adding of a finalist being a pre-agreed upon provision of the contract with the search firm.
Coincidentally, just prior to Dr. Joseph being named a finalist in for the gig his mentor Jerry Weist had moved from his longtime home in Maryland to Middle Tennessee. Even more fortuitous, he had agreed with…wait for it…Will Pinkston…to mentor the relatively inexperienced Joseph.
After finalists were announced, individual interviews were arranged. The day before one finalist, H. Allen Smith was scheduled to interview the Tennessean ran a piece painting him as a dream candidate for the reform crowd. He had been gaining traction as a candidate after the Tennessean piece traction was lost.
Allow me one more quick side step here about candidate Smith. Former MNEA head Eric Huth was quoted in the Tennessean as being concerned about Smith’s wife, “The one thing about Smith that I think is potentiality problematic is that he and his wife appear to be a package deal.” Yet I don’t remember Huth ever raising a single concern about Joseph’s number 2 Sito Narcisse and his wife Maritza Gonzales and their role as a package deal for MNPS.
Meanwhile the stories about Dr. Joseph were nothing but consistently favorable.
“He handles issues calmly. He doesn’t have a hair trigger. He has the right temperament,” said Jerry Weast, a retired Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools superintendent. “And he knows complex political issues around education.”
We were reminded that Joseph was up for another job, Guilford County Schools, NC, thus creating a sense of urgency. No real mention was made that Joseph had failed to finish his first superintendent contract in Seaford, Delaware nor that Seaford was a district with less than a dozen schools. There was no mention of a devastating state audit in 2014 that showed widespread problems and a lack of financial control by PGCS. Problems that had gone unresolved for years, but like Will Pinkston said at last night’s board meeting, what’s a dozen or so violations between friends. Really curious of what his threshold of concern would be.
But again, I digress. The point is, that like cattle through a chute the board, and Nashville, as a result, was led to one obvious conclusion, Dr. Joseph should be the next director of schools.
The morning after the vote, board member Amy Frogge and I were discussing the just concluded process and its results. Frogge despite misgivings with the process was in a state of optimism. She believed the process – while problematic – in the end, had produced a really good candidate with the potential to do great things. She was choosing to look past the shortcomings of the process and focus on the future.
I distinctly remember telling her, “You may be right. There is a lot to like about Dr. Joseph, but keep in mind, nothing that starts corrupt ends up pure. It just becomes more corrupt.” Unfortunately, those words became prophetic.
At last night’s board, I was brought back to those words, and I have to report that 3 years later, nothing has changed. Like a third-rate actor playing the role of Tyrion Lannister in a bad community theater production of Game of Thrones, Will Pinkston is continually allowed to manipulate us for his amusement and self-benefit. Chair Sharon Gentry continues to act as if Roberts Rules of Order is a work of fiction. While the board continues to fail to even follow the most basic of tenets of democratic governance. Board policies seem to be written to be ignored.
The air of the board room pre-meeting was wrought with racial tension. One would hope that Gentry would recognize the tension and make every effort to temper it. If there was any evidence of concern about inflaming racial undertones, those were quickly dispensed with by her designating a founding member of the Equity Alliance to give the Pledge of Allegiance. An act not objectionable on its own, but one that gave further credence to complaints with the director’s performance being all about race. Consider the tone set.
All week long on the MNPS website, the announced agenda came with the following red typed warning,
ATTENTION: By state law, any action on a Director of School’s contract must be the first item of business on an agenda. Therefore, public participation will occur after the Board of Education takes any action.
Apparently, that’s a law that doesn’t apply to Dr. Gentry because she addressed two “feel good” stories before getting to the discussion of Dr. Joseph’s contract termination. Consider the tone set.
All week long it had been reported that board member Anna Shepherd was introducing a motion calling for the termination of Dr. Joseph’s contract. Yet, here we were, Shepherd was absent due to an illness – I do hope she is feeling better – and her proposed motion just disappeared, its demise never to be addressed.
Instead, the discussion moved instantly to the proposed buyout of Dr. Joseph’s contract. This was despite an op-ed printed the day before authored by Shepherd in the Tennessean discussing her reasons for calling for dismissal and no formal vote granting the initiative to negotiate a settlement. Board chair Gentry had taken it upon herself to begin negotiations and reach a settlement agreement with Dr. Joseph to mutual dissolve his current contract sans approval by the board. WTF?!?
As part of the terms, Gentry had negotiated a buyout of Dr. Joseph’s sick days. She claimed that the legal had been unable to discern what district policy was on sick days. All they had to do was have a teacher call HR and they’d have known. One did recently and discovered that the 40 days she had accrued were worth…wait for it..nothing. Compounded by the information that had she needed those 40 days for maternity, she could have only used 10. After that, she would not be paid. Yet, Dr. Joseph will be walking with his.
In defense of the terms, board member Christiane Buggs gave an impassioned defense that placed Dr. Joseph’s failure on the shoulders of others. It was not dissimilar to a speech given to people who have their house broken into upon failing to lock the front door. As if that act was implied consent to have their stuff misappropriated.
Pinkston continued his ongoing efforts to shape the narrative by painting Joseph’s departure as being on his terms and due to a hostile workplace. Apparently, Pinkston had forgotten his role in creating a hostile workplace for recent Director of Schools Jesse Register. An act that Pinkston often brags about.
Many of us go to work every day in what could be described as a “hostile workplace” and we find a way to succeed. If Joseph was kicking ass and taking names, the district wouldn’t be negotiating his departure. He wouldn’t be leaving. And yes Mr. Pinkston this will taint his record.
Dr. Joseph’s record will accurately reflect that in his two forays into being a school superintendent, he left both times without fulfilling his initial contract. Being a director of schools is a difficult job fraught with opposition. How you handle that opposition dictates your level of success. As Amy Frogge points out in a recent Facebook post, Joseph has accumulated a laundry list of offenses that warrant his being dismissed with cause. Bottom line, despite Pinkston’s rhetoric, Dr. Joseph did not possess the skill set to succeed at MNPS. We are all worse for that.
For me, the highlights of last nights meeting were when Pinkston threatened to expose lies and half-truths and then later deemed to lecture on morality. The former being a subject he is well versed in, while the latter being a foreign entity to him. Those in the equity coalition seem intent on embracing his recent conversion to the cause, something I would caution against. Flowery rhetoric with no substance or real belief does not provide a vehicle for equity. Aligning with Pinkston comes at a cost to the moral clarity of your mission. Y’all have done too much good and worked too hard for positive change to fall for this snake oil salesman.
Newly elected board member Fran Bush didn’t come to play. After fellow board member Amy Frogge laid out the directors transgressions and why he should be fired – a speech that was interrupted several times by crowd members – Bush took the fight directly to a detractor. Pointing out that this discussion should never have been about one man and the color of his skin. The focus should have always been on the children and teachers who make up MNPS.
Much is made of Dr. Joseph’s commitment to equity but in that discussion, little focus is placed on the treatment that Fran Bush has received since being elected. People may call me an ass, or vile, or any other litany of names, but never have I been accused of being the wrong kind of white person. Never have I been accused of being a disgrace to my race. Bush is subject to those accusations on a daily basis and if we are to have true equity, it needs to stop.
To her credit, board member Buggs made brief statements on the misperception of the Black community as a monolith. While it was a welcome observation it didn’t go far enough. Hopefully, it is a theme that will be explored in greater detail in the future.
In the end, despite ample evidence presented as to why Dr. Joseph should not be paid out, the motion to offer settlement passed by a vote of 5 -3 in what felt like a preordained action. It needs to be recognized that Dr. Joseph’s current contract, as negotiated by him, has no provision for the board to pay him a settlement for firing him without cause. What the board voted to do last night was dissolve the current contract and enter into a new one. A new one negotiated by the same parties that negotiated the first one that is recognized as being favorable to…wait for it…Dr. Joseph.
The new contract comes with language that prohibits both parties from making disparaging remarks about the other. A clause that seems to be challenging to Dr. Joseph even before the paperwork is signed. In a letter sent to staff and parents, Dr. Joseph bid all a farewell, thanked them for the experience, and announced that he’d changed his social media handle to @unchainedJoseph. In case Dr. Joseph’s passive-aggressive action is too subtle for you, here are the lyrics to the referenced 2Pac song.
Only wish to breed, I explode into a million seeds
Ya’ll remember me, legendary live eternally
Bury me in pieces ’cause they fear reincarnation
Niggas screaming peace cause they fear when my squad face ‘em
Take them to places, stake they face
Then erase ‘em and brake ‘em
Murder motherfuckers at a rate and then quicken the pace
Blast me, but never ask me to live a lie
Am I wrong ’cause I wanna get it on till I die?
Now even if you blind you still see my prophecy
My destiny to overthrow those on top of me
Bitch made niggas and that bullshit you’re going through
Outlawz rushing you, busting you, we untouchable
Riddle me this, whenever somebody asks him about his social media handle, how will he explain it without disparaging MNPS? Just more immaturity from a man whose tenure was haunted by immaturity.
Throughout the discussion on the director’s buyout, those in attendance at the meeting were allowed to routinely vocally interject in response to things they didn’t like. Keep in mind that my laughing aloud at a recent board retreat earned me a stern rebuke from board member Gini Pupo-Walker. Apparently, that demand for consideration did not apply here as only after repeated requests from board members Frogge and Speering did Chair Gentry intercede to quite the crowd.
Much has been made of Bush, Speering, and Frogge leaving the room during public commentary. Maybe they would have stayed if Gentry had shown any indication that she planned to exercise any control over the crowd. Despite numerous lectures delivered over the last year about showing respect to Dr. Joseph, Gentry allowed speakers to openly attack board members and the crowd to applaud after inflammatory speeches. Apparently disrespecting fellow board members is permissible.
I have to interject here, respect is not earned by disrespecting others. Having your voice heard shouldn’t come at the expense of silencing other voices. Equity does not come from taking privilege from one and bestowing in on another. All means all.
After public participation, talk shifted to naming an interim director of schools. In what again felt like a preordained move – a feeling later validated by a Tennessean article – after minimal discussion, and with no other names raised, Dr. Adrienne Battle became the first woman director of schools for MNPS. This is cause for celebration.
However, apparently, nobody learned a single lesson from 2015, the last time MNPS named an interim director of schools. What she rejected in 2015, Gentry embraced in 2019. Prior to the main meeting and after the budget committee meeting, Dr. Gentry along with fellow board members Gini Pupo-Walker and Rachel Elrod summoned Frogge and Speering into the back room. Once there, they broached the subject of Battle as interim. The veteran school board members quickly warned that to do so would be a violation of sunshine laws and the meeting was quickly concluded.
Despite the Mayor’s recent warning about the school board doing things in private, it wasn’t a problem for him to meet with Battle before she was ever officially nominated as a candidate for the interim superintendent position. In other words, last week Gentry was engaged in buyout negotiations that she’d never been formally commissioned to conduct while introducing a replacement that had never been formally nominated, all under the tacit approval of the mayor who has no formal power over the board and had lectured about a failure to follow sunshine laws. Anyone else seeing a problem?
This is where I become torn. I truly believe that Dr. Battle is the best candidate to lead the district forward. It’s my belief that she has the skill set to heal the rifts that have been allowed to fester. I’ve actually spent the last 6 weeks championing her as a candidate. But once again, that which begins in corruption cannot become pure but rather only more corrupt.
Why does it prove so difficult for the board to do the right thing? Battle would have risen to the top without machinations, but now through certain board members selfish acts, her ascension has been tainted. An already difficult job gets made more difficult. When will board members realize that the end does not justify the means?
Hopefully Battle will prove the exception to the rule and she will be able to assemble a team that will be able to overcome the challenges ahead. Yes, I said a team. Personally, I believe that the appointment of Battle is recognition that this work cannot be done by one person independent of meaningful relationships. Relationships are not just part of the equation, they are the equation.
Over her long and mostly successful tenure at MNPS Adrienne Battle has forged many relationships. Some are good, and some not so good. Having a history means making friends and enemies; it means having successes and having failures. Let’s not fool ourselves, there are those that are waiting for her to stumble and stumble she will but how she handles those detractors and stumbles will define her outcomes. Personally, I’m optimistic.
Former board member Mary Pierce recently wrote an op-ed that identified a major problem with the MNPS school board. The existence of rules that apply to some but not all. Nowhere is this more evident than at last night’s board meeting and it’s got to stop.
Gini Pupo-Walker along with Rachel Elrod have been proponents of mediation for the board. A recent op-ed by Walker called for the board to start to work together. She writes,
Our school board has devolved our governing process into one where decision-making is often personal in nature with a winner-take-all approach, and debate is skewed toward ideology instead of a healthy and thoughtful discussion of what is best for students, schools and our community.
When students are assigned a writing task we often instruct them to consider the audience they are writing for. Let’s flip that. Read Walker’s whole piece and tell me if you believe the intended recipient of her writing is fellow board members or future voters.
Mediation is only effective if it involves honest self-assessment. I can give you the secret to better relationships, and therefore a better board in under 50 words.
If you want to have better friends be a better friend. If you want to have a better spouse, be a good spouse. If you to have better board members, be a better board member. The rules need to apply to all, not just a select few under select circumstances. Work your program and allow other’s to work their own. CYI only works if nobody can tell you are just covering your ass. It’s really all that simple.
Can we also do away with the narrative that criticism around Dr. Joseph’s performance was merely adults fighting over adult issues? Fiscal fidelity, teacher morale, and the modeling of appropriate behaviors are all issues that have a direct impact on the quality of instruction provided to children. As such, they impact the level of learning that takes place. Failure to recognize that is not focusing on children and is, in fact, dereliction of duties.
Upon his arrival, I wrote a welcome letter to Dr. Joseph. Sadly it hasn’t aged very well and many of the winners cited have turned into losers. Hopefully, it will serve as a cautionary tale. Equally unfortunate is that some of what I wrote then still remains pertinent today, MNPS is a system besieged by a lack of trust. I’d like to offer Dr. Battle the words I offered Dr. Joseph, maybe she will take them to heart,
Dr. Joseph arrives here officially on July 1, but is already working to learn his new district. There will be a great deal of focus on how he will manage Nashville schools. I hope he remembers what he said during his interview about collaboration. Without trust, none of that collaboration will be possible. Though if, during his tenure here, Dr. Joseph does nothing but restore trust to the system, then he will be head and shoulders above the district leaders of the past 15 years. Trust can only be restored through transparency and collaboration. Collaboration must also include people we may disagree with. We don’t need to chase people out of the game; what we need to do is find a way to work together to get the best outcomes for all stakeholders. It is my hope that sooner rather then later, Dr. Joseph sits down with teachers and truly listens to what they have to say. They have been ignored for too long. Principals and parents need to feel validated as well.
Predictably the clown prince of mischief ended the meeting by sorta withdrawing his resignation. Pinkston is still resigning, he is just not sure of the date, Could be next week, or next month, or maybe next year. We are just to accept that the rules do not apply to him and he is to do as he pleases.
To me, it doesn’t matter. The one date for his resignation that Pinkston can’t change is next September. Come time for the swearing-in of the next board, despite his best efforts, Pinkston will not be present.
Indications though are that the Mayor is still taking advice from Will Pinkston and still making groundless demands. All in one fell swoop he tells the board to wait on a director search and then vows to work with Gentry, whose term as chair has 4 more months before it expires, on the search. He vows that the next search will be a collaborative approach between the board and the mayor’s office, he will flex more authority if he needs to. What page of the City Charter is that on?
Cryptically he goes on to say, “We are working on some specific items. I’m not ready to talk about those specifics today, but there will be specifics that we talk about that demonstrate that stability going forward.” Is Briley proposing Mayoral control? Because if he is, that’s a very different conversation. Perhaps it’s one we need to have.
Briley continues to forget that he has his own upcoming election to focus on unless this is his idea of a winning strategy. Three men – Shawn Joseph, Phil Bredesen, and Eric Huth – heeded Pinkston’s political advice over the past 2 years. Ask them how it worked out for them. Does Mayor Briley really want to be number 4? He sure seems bent on it.
That’s enough about the past. Let’s welcome Adrienne Battle to the fore. A recent Facebook quote by Equity Alliance Founder and frequent sparring partner Tequila Johnson made me smile.
Okay, he’s gone now. Can we all come together and agree that we need to redirect our energy towards pushing the council and the mayor to fund this 77 million dollar budget request. Let’s shake hands and be friends-no permanent enemies in politics.Thomas Weber ✊🏾✊🏻 (that’s your white hand FYI) let’s fuck shit up for our kids.
Let’s do it. Thank you Tequila I needed that. Today shouldn’t mark the end of anything, merely the beginning of the beginning. We still have an ambitious budget that needs to be sold to the mayor and city council. We still have to get more attention focused on our priority schools. We still have to find supports to supplement a discipline policy that in its current form is putting students and teachers at risk. We still need to fix both a human resource department and a communications department. That is enough work for all of us and it is going to take all of us working together.
So for a little bit, let’s pull our attention from the rearview mirror and focus on the road ahead.
Friday we’ll dive deeper into what’s what and how things may look going forward.Till then, thanks for the support and make sure you check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page where we try to accentuate the positive. If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight, send it on and I’ll do the best I can. Send things to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Thanks for your support if you feel so inclined, please head over to Patreon and help a brother out.