“Don’t use the phone. People are never ready to answer it. Use poetry.”
“But if you’re gonna dine with them cannibals
Sooner or later, darling, you’re gonna get eaten . . .”
I had no intention of writing a mid-week blog this week, but a lot happened yesterday and I would be remiss if I did not comment. The biggest event was Dr. Battle announcing her starting lineup. I’ve been saying for at least a month that she needs a team, and now she has one.
Now that the lineup card is out – and yes, I’m going to continue using sports references – let’s analyze it.
The first thing to notice is that all jobs are listed sans the “interim title.” Don’t be fooled though, everybody on this team is on the clock. Dr. Battle may have a contract with a duration of two years, but there is still the caveat that the school board can launch a search at any time. That search would immediately make all of these positions temporary. So this team better go out and win some games before ownership gets antsy.
Quick side note here about that search. Last night, part-time school board member Will Pinkston went on one of his patented Twitter rants about the hiring of Hank Clay as Chief of Staff – more on that later. In that rant, he voiced regret for casting a vote “to not undertake a superintendent search sooner rather than later.” My question here is, what vote is he referencing? Was the motion he purportedly voted on for a specific wait period or just a general “later rather than sooner”? Or is this just another example of Pinkston’s backroom deal cooking? I suspect the latter.
Here’s our friend irony making an appearance once again. In his caustic resignation letter, Pinkston accused fellow board members of being racially insensitive, yet here he is once again flying his misogyny flag at full mast. He done told that woman what she should do and since she didn’t do it, it’s now “possibly the worst decision in the modern history of Metro government.” I would argue that the hiring of Dr. Shawn Joseph offers some pretty stiff competition and the honor of that decision belongs to Mr. Pinkston.
Pinkston regularly argues that the board needs to stay “out of the weeds,” yet here we are less than 3 months into Battle’s tenure, and he’s already taken to social media, and by extension, the mainstream media, to publicly express his ire with her over a decision she made. A decision that the board has empowered her to make. But that’s all right, the Tennessean’s star reporter Nate Rau will probably quote him in a future article that paints him as some kind of elder statesman and Clay as a charter school villain. Pinkston’s enablers continually give him cover and allow him to act of his own separate playbook sans accountability.
The good news is that Battle has plenty of women in government positions she can turn to for advice on how to withstand Pinkston’s public tirades. Mary Mancini, Courtney Rogers, Holly McCall, Vesia Hawkins, Wendy Tucker, and countless others have been on the receiving end of his blunt sword. It’s usually all sound and fury signifying nothing, but still annoying nonetheless.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the lineup. On paper, Battle’s team looks pretty solid. There are some very experienced players who have been tapped. As a result, last night, accolades were flying for Dr. Battle on social media. But can we hold off on scheduling the victory parade just yet?
We do a disservice to these dedicated professionals when we start celebrating before anything tangible is accomplished. Yes, they are a formidable unit, but they still have to do the work, and there is no guarantee that all will be successful. The difficulty level of making adjustments is increased when you’ve written hymns about the players before they’ve taken the field, and adjustments always need to be made. Let’s celebrate the positive step of creating a team, and then let’s see what happens.
Most of us are familiar with the top of the roster. Chris Henson is named as Chief of Finance – no mention if operational responsibilities have been removed from his plate. Many are of the opinion that when Dr. Joseph added operational responsibilities to Henson’s job description, his performance on financial matters suffered. I’d offer the budget process over the last two years as evidence of that claim. It would benefit all if operational responsibilities were placed elsewhere. Henson is the Crash Davis of this team, the aging veteran who is a bit dinged up but whose wisdom offers a valuable asset.
Dr. Tony Majors is the Human Resources Chief. Hopefully removing the interim title from in front of Major’s name will lead to him removing his hand from the student services department and allow Antoinette Williams to exercise full control of that department. Majors is an extremely talented administrator, albeit one with little human resources experience.
It’s no secret that Majors has ambitions to hold the superintendent title; hopefully, he’ll be able to temper those ambitions in order to help lead a team that he will lean on a great deal. I have a deep respect for Majors, but also a degree of wariness. Dr. Majors is the Lebron James of this team, the Hall-of-Famer who sometimes lets personal ambition get in the way of team success.
Dr. David Williams is the Chief Academic Officer. Early indications are positive and he’s pledged a renewed focus on academics. Williams is like the Delanie Walker of this team, a dependable all-star who at times gets overlooked in the conversation.
Now back to Hank Clay. I’ve known Clay for quite some time and at times have been extremely critical of him. He’s never taken that criticism personally and has continually remained open and engaging. That’s a rare trait. It’s long been my argument that the Chief of Staff position is an integral part of the cabinet and must be filled by someone with extensive relationships and deep institutional knowledge. Clay brings both of those qualities to the table.
The other important ingredient that Clay brings to the table is loyalty. Dr. Battle needs someone she knows she can trust implicitly. Clay is loyal, almost to a fault. He will carry out Battle’s wishes and not try to undercut her authority. Clay is the Tim Duncan of the team.
The question of loyalty is already coming into play. I am already hearing speculation that advice on Clay’s hiring was given knowing that it would incite Pinkston and possibly lead to him pulling his support for Battle. Something which has proven true as Pinkston is reportedly already telling people he is done with her in the role of director of schools. A move not at all out of character for him. Like I have previously said, leading MNPS is akin to the world of Game of Thrones. Now let’s see who steps up and defends Battle against Pinkston’s very public attack.
My bets are on board members Fran Bush and Gini Pupo-Walker forming an unlikely alliance and showing a glimpse into what future board leadership looks like, with Speering, Shepherd, and Frogge supplying some muscle behind the scenes. Let’s see if Buggs, who has most recently benefited from a Pinkston alliance, leaps to the defense of Nashville’s homegrown first African American woman director, or if she allows her to become a victim of Pinkston’s personal battles. This is Battle’s first test of fire, so let’s see how it goes.
Now we come to the newest member of the team, longtime Memphis educator and former head of the Tennessee Achievement School District, Sharon Griffin. Griffin will serve as the head of Innovation Schools. I’ve been following this woman’s career for the last several years, and I’m a fan. That said, there are some caveats.
One of the things I most admire about Griffin is her recognition of the importance of relationships in doing this work. Unfortunately, much of her success has been reliant on the relationships she forged in Memphis. Furthermore, in reading the coverage in the Tennessean, you may come away with the impression that we stole her from the ASD, which is not exactly the case.
Griffen was appointed last year to lead the ASD by then-State Superintendent Candice McQueen. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant move. Unfortunately, it did not quite work out like that. About a month ago, rifts began to appear between her and the charter school operators who make up the ASD.
Who was at fault? Who knows? It could have been the inherent flaws in the turnaround district’s design. It could have been her leadership style clashing with others. It could have been that charter operators felt threatened by her. Whatever the reason, it was clear it wasn’t working and separation was imminent.
Still, at least one board member is thrilled with the selection:
“She’s done the work in the trenches year after year,” MNPS board member Gini Pupo-Walker said. “It’s no secret we have more priority schools in Nashville than we did three years ago. When I heard we’d hired Dr. Griffin, I was thrilled.”
By my estimation, Griffin is the Odell Beckham of this team, A Hall of Fame-caliber player coming off a down season hoping that a change of scenery changes outcomes. Her hiring raises a lot of questions for Memphis, Nashville, and the future of the ASD. It’s a very bold move by Dr. Battle and hopefully one that pays off for everybody.
Dr. Battle also announced a change in the governance structure of MNPS. Gone are the Community Superintendents and the quadrant model, for the most part. The district is returning to a tiered-level system with separate administrators overseeing elementary, middle, and high school levels. The quadrant model is not completely going away though. It will still be utilized to administer student supports and data will continue to be tracked by quadrants.
Last year’s community superintendents were repurposed, with Pippa Meriwether and Damon Cathey taking over at the elementary level. Michelle Springer will oversee middle schools. Dottie Critchlow retired at the end of the year, and as a result, Dr. Schunn Turner is being brought in to oversee high schools. None of this is really unexpected other than Turner’s appointment. Turner served as principal at MLK Magnet school and is credited with enticing first lady Michelle Obama to visit the school. Recently she oversaw advanced academics for the district, and while in that role raised concerns about the district pay schedule.
Since we are being honest in this assessment, neither Meriwether nor Cathey have inspired confidence during their tenure as community supes, and I am not sure either will excel in the new position but deserve the opportunity under new leadership. Both have extensive experience at the elementary level.
I am guardedly optimistic about Turner and Springer. Turner has always been a transparent administrator who has proven competent in several different roles within MNPS. Springer is a former military vet who has also served admirably at several levels. Sometimes her directness has alienated people, though others have found it very refreshing. The proof will be in the pudding.
These administrators are kinda like the Toronto Raptors. There is a lot of talent there if it can be harnessed and focused.
All in all, I think this team is a good start, and Dr. Battle should be applauded for her careful selection. With roles now clearly defined, hopefully, the team will meld and lead MNPS into the future. There will be a lot of eyes on them and most don’t have experience being under the level of scrutiny they’ll face going forward. So that’ll be an additional challenge, but one I think they are up to.
Now, let’s play ball.
QUICK BUDGET NOTE
I hope everyone is continuing to pay attention to the Metro budget process. There was a lot of action yesterday in committee with a vote scheduled for today’s council meeting. The biggest news comes via a proposed amendment by CM Vercher that essentially merges the Mendes amendment into hers.
As a result, a smaller property tax increase is being proposed, but also a smaller allotment to MNPS: $50 million instead of $55 million. That further translates into a potential pay raise for teachers of 4% instead of 5%. Now that’s all contingent on where the school board designates the additional funding. Some SEL initiatives could be cut to facilitate a 5% raise or those could be further funded and teacher raises remain at 3%.
My concern remains that in supporting a property tax increase, teachers undercut the potential of reaching the necessary 10% raises in a timely fashion. Nobody should think that a tax increase will not come without backlash. That backlash may or not be significant enough to prevent a larger salary increase in the near future. New leadership at MNEA has already indicated that they are developing a strategy to get to that 10%, but I have some trepidation on the potential success of any initiative coming on the heels of a property tax increase.
Lost in all of this talk about property tax increases is any discussion about how in 2018, Metro Council was able to redirect $29.8 million of property taxes towards redevelopment loans, yet they can’t do the same on a recurring basis for Metro schools. $29.8 million directed towards MNPS instead of towards MDHA would translate into approximately a 6% raise. Admittedly that is not a recurring source of income, but it is still worth exploring closer with possible future changes in legislation allowing for more money to leave the the TDZ.
A symbolic victory should not be the goal here. A 4% increase coupled with an increase in insurance premiums could result in such an outcome. The focus must remain on 10% now being a necessity and not just a “want.” That narrative remains underdeveloped and until the need for an increase at that level can be relayed in 30 seconds to the average constituent, the initiative will struggle.
Let’s see what happens tonight as the situation remains fluid.