A DELICATE DANCE

“Every conflict plagues the peace that follows it.”
Stephen L. Carter, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

“You say you love rain, but you use an umbrella to walk under it. You say you love sun, but you seek shelter when it is shining. You say you love wind, but when it comes you close your windows. So that’s why I’m scared when you say you love me.”
Bob Marley

 

Today early voting polling stations open up across Davidson County. Previously only the Howard School building location has been open.

Early voting has become increasingly important over the last few years as more and more constituents choose the convenience of casting their votes ahead of election day. It usually follows that if a candidate wins early voting, they’ll win the race.

Outside of education or activist circles, the race to be the mayor of Nashville continues to garner little interest. What many people don’t know is that there are more than 4 people running for mayor.  One of those other candidates, Jon Sewell,  wrote an op-ed this week calling attention to the media’s parsing of the candidate list and arguing that despite what some may say, he’s a serious candidate.

I say what the others can’t say to demonstrate that the body politic of Nashville is more than greased palms scratching sweaty backs. The unfamiliar informal style supports a serious substance in an unconventional socially engaged practice. A changing politics opens opportunities for a new praxis. It’s ok to laugh.

This week saw the Tennessean as part of their election coverage, devote a full article to garnering the opinion of mayoral candidates on the potential closing of KA Academies. In case you aren’t caught up, an in-depth investigation of Knowledge Academies Charter School revealed a plethora of issues. Enough so that the school board has initiated action to close the troubled charter school. KA has responded by seeking legal action to prevent the board from closing the school.

Why I care about a mayoral candidates opinion on KA is beyond me. The mayor has no input on what action the school board will take in relation to revoking the schools charter. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous. The Tennessean appears to have an agenda to continually blur the lines between the mayor’s office and the school board. That’s a bit un-democratic, as the school board is an entity elected by the citizens of Nashville to carry out leadership duties for the school system.

I understand the argument that the mayor gets judged by school outcomes and therefore should have some say, but that is not how the current system is structured. It will be interesting to see if changes to that structure are pursued in the coming years.

Because education is such a multi-layered issue, the school board often finds themselves criticized by outside groups. While there certainly have been times when I’ve been frustrated by the actions of the board, after nearly a decade of involvement I’ve come to the realization that the board often earns the title dysfunctional when it acts in a manner different from the desires of particular interest groups.

Often said interest groups are made up of members of the political or business class aided and abetted by the print media.

The case of KA is an interesting one because among the complaints of KA are charges that they lack a supply of qualified teachers, employ too large classroom sizes and a failure to meet academic requirements. Charges that are not exclusive to the charter operator. Interestingly enough, and underreported is the fact that despite its listed shortcomings, KA has lost very little enrollment for the coming year.

In my opinion, it’s worth exploring why parents are continuing to have faith in the school despite its well-documented shortcomings. Is there more to the story? Are we missing important details? Unfortunately, because of the legal action initiated by KA to block closure, board members are unable to talk with parents unencumbered by school officials. But that shouldn’t stop reporters from surveying parents. A survey that would certainly produce more useful information than one of the mayoral candidate’s opinions on the potential closing of the school.

DISTRICT LEADERSHIP

Earlier this week MNPS released a list of it’s latest leadership hires.

  • Jeresther Thorpe-Page, Cumberland Elementary (interim)
  • Polly Cauthen, Robert E. Lillard Elementary (interim)
  • Dr. Cheryl Bowman, Shawb Elementary (interim)
  • LarCulia Woods, Gra-Mar Middle School(interim)
  • Kelby Garner, MNPS Virtual School
    (interim)
  • Natalyn Gibbs, Executive Director of School Support – Priority Schools (interim) 
  • James V. Witty, Executive Director of School Support – Secondary Schools (interim)
  • Elisa Norris, Executive Officer, Strategy and Performance Management
  • Karen D. Gallman, Executive Officer, Schools and Academic Support 

These hires are in addition to the 23 principal hires previously announced. Since we spend so much time talking about equity, I think it’s important to note that of these 32 hires, only one is Hispanic despite Hispanic students making up 26% of the district’s population. Equity means that all are represented. When it comes to the employment of Hispanic educators, it’s clear MNPS has an equity problem.

A few other things worth noting. Both Gibbs and Witty, were on previous director Shawn Joseph’s shortlist for promotion last year. Is this just a continuation of a previous initiative? In Witty’s case, his recent tweets are being viewed through a different lens.

There is a decided lack of experience in traditional high schools at the EDSSI level. Those charged with leading high school principals are experienced in schools with limited enrollments. The executive principal with the most experience at the high school level is overseeing elementary schools.

Despite school board members’ voiced concerns about the district being too top-heavy, new central office positions are being created and EDSSI jobs are being filled. These positions are being created with, as far as I can tell, little oversight from the school board.

MNPS now has a Chief of Priority Schools and a priority school EDSSI, despite little or no evidence that the reason for underperformance by priority schools is linked to insufficient leadership in the central office.

I would argue that a human resource person dedicated to priority school talent acquisition and management would be a more worthy investment and one that would come at a much lower cost to the district. But I fail to see the value of more centralized management.

Earlier in the year, the board removed Dr. Joseph as Director of Schools. This action came about because it was becoming more and more apparent that Dr. Joseph did not possess the necessary skill set to lead MNPS and that his policies were not working. Yet despite that action, very little seems to have changed.

Last week, in a presentation to the school board CAO David Williams presented next years Key Performance Indicators. KPI’s that are amazingly similar to this years KPI’s which were unmet. I’ve yet to see a new strategic plan that highlights any significant strategy changes, so I’m confused about how we expect to meet goals this year that we failed to meet last year.

I’ve yet to see a strategy unveiled on how the district plans to address teacher attrition and recruitment. Some media outlets have reported that with just 2 weeks until school starts MNPS has over 900 positions currently open. To be clear those reports include all jobs with MNPS, not just teacher positions. Even so, while I’m not quite sure that the count is accurate, it’s clear that MNPS has a staffing problem.

Over the years, I’ve become convinced that certain data is left intentionally vague. A vagueness that protects administrators from being tied down to actual strategies. Ask how many central office jobs exist or the number of centralized services the district provides, and you’ll get answers cloaked in ambiguity.

Local educator and blogger Zack Barnes pointed out this week that when he left district employment at the end of the last school year he was never offered an exit interview. I’ve long raised the issue of the district conducting these interviews, and despite assurances that steps were being taken to adopt such a policy, reports continue to show that the district as of date is not fully engaged in the practice. I can only believe that it’s a case of, if you don’t know the actual issues you can supply your own narrative.

Nearly 6 months ago the law firm Bone, McAllester, Norton delivered a report commissioned by MNPS leadership at a cost of $100k that painted a very damning picture of the MNPS HR department. It also came with some specific recommendations. Recommendations that have yet to be implemented.

Based on looking at the HR department, the communications department, academic goals, and a continuation of top-heavy staffing, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask, why did MNPS make a change? I believe it was the right move, but my criticisms were always rooted in Dr. Joseph’s policies and not his personality. But what we’ve got now is a kinder, gentler version of Dr. Joseph without an indication of anything significant changing. If that was the strategy, then we should have just left Dr. Joseph in place for another year.

This week WSMV raised the question of the school board starting a search for a director of schools. Per the news station, by all accounts, the school board hasn’t talked about it and there are no current plans to talk about it in the future. I would say that’s a little problematic.

I fully support Dr. Battle and believe that she is capable of doing a good job. I agree with the sentiments of school board member Christiane Buggs,

“The idea that we could grow someone in the city, that they can move up through the ranks, that they could be taught by our city, she’s a daughter of Nashville, and now that she is at the helm, yes I’m excited, and yes I’m supportive. I mean she’s homegrown,”

But she has to earn the opportunity, she can’t just be awarded it arbitrarily because she’s homegrown. Part of earning that opportunity is going through the vetting process. As of date, that vetting process has not transpired, yet Dr. Battle is adding positions to the budget and further committing us to a path that has not produced results in the past. At the very least it should be required that she lay out a vision of what a future under her leadership would look like.

That vision has to be more in-depth than focusing on student needs, providing rigorous instruction, and supporting teachers. It can’t be enough that Mayor Briley supports her.

Further complicating things is Dr. Battle’s pregnancy. While it is a cause for celebration, it does create challenges in the timing of launching a director search.

State law states that no school board, may either terminate, without cause, or enter into a contract with any director of schools during a period extending from forty-five (45) days prior to the general school board election until thirty (30) days following the election. In essence, that means a choice would have to be made by mid-June or wait until after next years board election.

Dr. Battle is due to deliver in October. I think most would rule out starting a search before September 1 and there would likely be a hesitancy to embark of a search while she is out on maternity leave. It is also impossible to predict potential health complications involved with her pregnancy, hopefully, everything progresses problem free but the possibility of complications must also be taken into consideration. The multitude of variables line up to make a very tight schedule for the current board to conduct a proper search.

Personally, I believe that there is a concentrated effort to draw out the process and abdicate the responsibility of choosing a new director to a new board. There are those that believe a new board may more closely align with their priorities – more so than the current configuration. But that is no guarantee, next years election could produce a board even more fractious than the current configuration.

All this requires a very delicate, but necessary dance. In talking with someone last week I rose my concern that Mayor Briley had talked with Dr. Battle as the interim director of schools before she was ever introduced to board members as a candidate. They sloughed my concern off by saying, “So the process wasn’t perfect but we are both happy with the outcome.”

That doesn’t work for me. The process is every bit as important as the outcome. One of the arguments raised for having the current board conduct the search is that they have been through the process 3 times and hopefully learned from past mistakes. A new board runs the risk of repeating those mistakes.

I’m not advocating the board to start a search today, but I would encourage them to start thinking about potential timelines and beginning to forge a strategy for the future. To not even begin to talk about the future is a dereliction of duties. We can’t expect a director of schools to be proactive if the board continues to operate in a reactive manner.

QUICK HITS

MNPS employees received an email this morning containing information about pending pay raises. The email outlines some exemptions to the pay raise,

Not all MNPS employees are eligible for the 3% salary increase. Excluded positions include Board members, the director, the chief officers, associate superintendents, executive officers, substitutes, teachers on a Tennessee permit, contracted employees and those who are above step and grade.

That paragraph contains a misprint. The word “above” should read “off”. This error highlights an alarming tendency of MNPS to not fully proofread things before sending them out.  Anybody who has read recent communication from the district knows exactly of whence I speak. To me, this speaks to an issue of workplace culture.

Dr. Joseph and his leadership team were often late for meetings, showed up unprepared, and often omitted details. We all tend to emulate the practices of our managers and so it’s not surprising that these behaviors became widespread through the central office. Hopefully, that’ll begin to change.

Earlier in the summer, I reported on rumors that parts of MNPS were susceptible to a state take over. Details remain vague and not readily available, but after much digging, I’ve come to a conclusion that suggested take over action was a threat made by Governor Lee’s team in order to limit the amount of opposition to voucher legislation mounted by Mayor Briley.

In other words, pipe down or we’ll take parts of the district. No threat can be outright dismissed in this day and age of a Republican supermajority but a state takeover in this case, in my opinion, is a pretty weak threat. Legislation already exists to give schools a years buffer and the stomach for adding schools to the state turn around district lessens daily. As we watch the Casada role as speaker of the house unravel, it appears that there is little teeth to the governor’s administrations threats.

Next month, MNPS School board will select a chairperson for the coming year. Hopefully, the re-election of Dr. Gentry will not happen. Anna Shepherd has voiced interest in serving an additional leadership term and the both Amy Frogge and Christiane Buggs have been mentioned for the role. I’ve also heard several times that not only is Will Pinkston going to rescind his resignation, but he’s also mulling taking a swing at the chairperson position. Let’s see what happens.

All summer long I’ve watched Stratford HS parents take to social media asking for better communication from the district. You’ll remember that Stratfords Principal Mike Steele was placed on administrative leave while the district looked into charges of grading improprieties. Steele was cleared of that charge, found guilty of lesser charges, and as a result, received 3-day suspension without pay. The case wasn’t resolved until the end of June.

This week the district finally took steps to inform parents by sending out a letter to address their concerns. You read the letter and tell me if you would find it satisfactory. Parent involvement continues to be a pain point for the district.

The history of entertainment is filled with acts that thrived on the small stage but were, for whatever reason, unable to make the jump to the big stage – be it screen or arena. There is a luxury of anonymity when playing on a smaller stage that gets sacrificed when the jump up is made. There are more eyes, making more judgements on both actions and decisions. Adjustments have to be made that take into account the increased scrutiny. MNPS leadership is currently undergoing such a readjustment.

None, except for Chris Henson have ever plied their trade on a stage of this size. They need to realize, and quickly, that their actions, both intended and unintended, are constantly being read and interpreted by all. It is no longer possible to act, or talk, with impunity, Actions need to become very deliberate and analysis for potential misinterpretation needs to become part of daily practice. The pressure is only going to increase.

That’s it for today. Thank you for your support. 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 to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Thanks for your support, and if you feel so inclined, please head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Thanks to this week’s newest donors. Don’t forget to answer this week’s poll questions. Have a great weekend, and we’ll see you on Monday.

 

 

 

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