“I believe that today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it. We must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and the soul.”
― Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
“You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute,
And now and then stab as occasion serves.”
― Christopher Marlowe, Edward II
Twas the morn before Thanksgiving and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Kids were still in bed, and teachers were relishing a moment to catch their breath before diving in and preparing for tomorrow’s festivities. It was a well earned but brief respite.
Despite being a shortened week, there was no shortage of activity last week for MNPS. Activity that held a financial impact for MNPS and it’s teachers.
Those teachers who checked their bank accounts this morning likely found an extra $200 in them. The long-delayed BEP reimbursement checks were finally delivered to teachers. Typically these checks are distributed by the first week in October. This year there was a delay in sending out reimbursements due to MNPS transitioning to a new HR platform.
While the money is certainly welcome, especially at this time of year, it needs to be noted that this money is not additional compensation but rather reimbursement for monies already spent by most teachers. Money that was spent way back in August and September. In this light, it would have been courteous if the cash had come with a little explanation and thank you for the patience. But that’s not how we roll.
In MNPS world, teachers are all too willing to sacrifice, and leadership is all too willing to take those sacrifices for granted. The BEP circumstances are only one more incident in a long line of incidents that are indicative of a pattern of behavior that must be rectified if the district hopes to increase the retention rate of teachers.
MAYOR COOPER GIVES HIMSELF A STOUT PAT ON THE BACK
Over the summer then-mayor, David Briley was in the midst of a re-election bid. Eventual winner John Cooper had made great strides with teachers by repeatedly acknowledging that teacher pay was inadequate, calling it the “question of the season.” In response to Cooper’s growing popularity Briley cooked up a desperate plan in hopes of currying teacher support at the ballot box – a 3% raise that would take effect on January 1, 2020.
The pay increase was purportedly made possible through Briley freeing up $7.5 million of the $11.2 million the district pays to the Metro Development and Housing Agency for tax increment financing loan repayment. Briley argued that he could do this without the council’s approval because it was classified as a reduced expenditure for the district. The move and the argument raised eyebrows and was written off as a cheap political stunt, but was allowed to proceed.
Candidate Cooper attacked his opponent by saying, “The message this announcement sends is that the mayor can spend an entire year making excuses, only to discover money for employees the month before the election.” A statement that challenged the motives of the strategy, but not the validity.
To his credit, Council Member Bob Mendes did voice some concerns about the proposal. However, most of those concerns centered around the impact that the reduction of the TIF payment would have on city finances. Nowhere was a flag raised that the city would not be able to utilize the entire 7.5 million for teacher raises. In the end, Mendes concluded at the time, “On balance, I am leaning toward thinking it’s a “good” deal for Nashville — even if the roll-out was poorly communicated and oddly timed.”
Lost in the political machinations was whether the funding was recurring or simply a one time stream. In Mendes’s opinion, this was a one time deal and permission would have to be garnered from Regions every year, but that it was highly likely that Regions would continue to provide the waiver in future years.
Well, we all know how the election turned out. Cooper was the overwhelming choice to lead the city and it wasn’t a close decision. A less kind man might describe the results as a mandate against Briley’s leadership.
Fast forward to November and it’s time for him to start honoring promises. Granted he didn’t personally make the raise promise, but the office did and I would argue that when he took over the office he accepted the responsibility for honoring the precious promises. Teacher expectations were that come January 1, they would see a raise – especially since MDHA had turned over the funding for raises in September.
Unfortunately, in the time between Cooper’s assentation to Mayor and the present, the Tennessee State Comptroller paid a visit and his message was dire – Nashville was short on cash and needed to rectify the situation ASAP, or the state would. How the council was unaware of this situation prior to the comptroller’s warning is a debate for another day, but I would argue that perhaps it would behoove us to focus more on oversight and a little less on the appearance of civility.
Nashville government has long held a tradition of the council not outwardly being critical of the mayor and allowing them to pretty much steer the ship unencumbered. Over the years there have been pockets of resistance, but for the most part, Nashville mayors have been granted the benefit of the doubt. Had that not been the case, perhaps council members would have raised red flags long before now. It’s not like the writing hasn’t been on the wall for years, Nashville has just been too distracted by shiny objects to read it.
As the deadline for approving the proposed raises approached, Cooper’s office remained silent. Instead of confirming the inevitably of the raises, they began to send messages that raised doubts, “In light of the Comptroller’s report this week, we are doing everything possible to make the raise happen. The finance director is working with MNPS to determine the sources of funds.”
Mendes, arguably the council’s most respected member, offered little reassurance himself in outlining his strategy for facing Nashville’s budget crisis. To say teachers were becoming concerned is an understatement.
In the past, the teacher’s union(MNEA) would have taken more of a “wait and see” approach when it came to holding politicians accountable. Fortunately, the current MNEA leadership isn’t cut from the same cloth. MNEA President Amanda Kail wasted no time in calling for public reassurance of the administration’s intentions by the mayor’s office. Tuesday’s press conference was a direct response to Kail and MNEA’s pressure.
Here’s where things get a little askew for me. Bonuses and raises are not just about the money. They are given as a sign of respect and to garner deeper loyalty. Giving people money is a prime opportunity to demonstrate the level of appreciation an employer has for their people. In that light, the timing and the message are as important as the actual payment.
I’d argue that not being clear and allowing doubt to set in, some of the potential goodwill the raises would have earned was lost. A loss that Metro Nashville government can ill afford.
Nashville has a history of not honoring promises made to those who serve to make the city run – police, fireman, first responders, and teachers. Over the past decade, promises of increased compensation have been broken with little consideration. As a result, the city faces severe understaffing in both the police department and MNPS. A simple message honoring the teachers raise would have gone a long way towards assuaging fears.
Instead, teachers were left for weeks to speculate whether a promise by city leaders would be honored. That speculation only served to fuel perceptions of disrespect that were already ingrained.
Finally, Cooper decided to address the growing concerns, But he did so with a political spectacle that presented only more twists. The promise will be honored, but only $2.5 million of it will come from the aforementioned revenue source, the rest will come from the coffers of MNPS itself. $5 million of the funding will be taken from MNPS’s fund balance. A move that requires the council’s permission.
Once again, we turn to CM Mendes for the best explanation of what’s what.
“The administration also told us today that the rest of the $7.5 million is coming from Fund Balance money. The Fund Balance is basically money that has been appropriated in prior years but is unspent. It is typically impossible to get a budget to be spent precisely to the dollar. For obvious reasons, it is better for a department to come in better than budget rather than over budget. When a department ends a year without having spent all the money it was appropriated, the unused money is called “Fund Balance.” Ideally, you would have the Fund Balance accumulate slowly over time.
The Comptroller had two slides that referred to MNPS’s Fund Balance. Like the rest of Metro’s operating budget, for several years now, we have making ends meet at MNPS by using up the accumulated Fund Balance. The audited numbers show that, as of June 30, 2016, the MNPS Fund Balance was about $74 million. Two years later, as of June 30, 2018, the MNPS Fund Balance had eroded to about $35 million. Mayor’s Cooper’s plan is to use Fund Balance money to pay for the rest of the January 1 raises.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but that drastic downturn is quite disturbing to me and begs quite a few questions. We are talking roughly a $40 million drop between 2016 – 2018. And now we are going to dip into it again? And how is this better than Briley’s plan?
Neither plan includes recurring funding. Both plans require a great deal of faith in politicians to make teachers a priority devoid of any past evidence. Both plans require faith in politicians to show financial prudence where none has been shown in the past. That’s asking for a lot of faith, where it hasn’t been rewarded in the past. Furthermore, it is faith asked for with no acknowledgment of the current player’s role in past actions. That’s a big ask.
All the blame, and to a certain extent rightfully so, has been shifted to the backs of previous financial directors and past administrations, but it’s important to point out that neither Cooper or Mendes are political outsiders. Several new council members were not involved in previous decisions, but many of the current council members are holdovers from past governing bodies. Riddled throughout Metro Government are people that have been instrumental in past administrative decisions. One of those people was just appointed to a vacant seat on the school board.
Given those facts, why should teachers believe that outcomes this time around will be any different than in the past?
It’s also worth noting that the $7.5 million price tag only covers from January 1 to the end of the fiscal year, July 1. To make the funding for a 3% raise recurring is going to require finding $15 million in additional funding. It’s a hefty price tag but one that in fairness, all stakeholders are expressing a commitment to paying.
In the end, I believe that it is Mendes who gives the best advice,
“I support the decision to fund this. As a city, we have to start on the road to repairing employee compensation somewhere. They deserve this and more.
I support this mechanism for funding the January 1 raise. Briley came up with a mechanism that was not recurring and that was inconsistent with how Metro’s finances work. Cooper has a mechanism that he is transparently saying is not recurring, but at least makes sense within the framework of Metro’s finances.”
One parting thought, and it’s a cautionary one, I would guard against reducing the issue of teacher retention down to just one of pay. Over the last year, we have talked a great deal about pay, but have spent little time addressing a failed discipline policy coupled with a walk that doesn’t align with the talk.
Dr. Batlle does a fantastic job of conveying a sense of respect for teachers in her talk. Unfortunately, many of those on her team fail to reinforce that message through their actions.
Teachers are placed on administrative leave all too indiscriminately. Their attendance is required at all too many meetings that could be replaced with an email. The expectation to place themselves in physical danger is continually demanded along with a failure to recognize the impact of an ineffectual discipline plan on student outcomes.
The press conference I’d like to attend is the one where those additional issues are addressed, along with increased funding. Until then, honoring a promise earns acknowledgment but not a parade.
Voting for collaborative conferencing is now officially open and eligible voters should have received an email with instructions on how to participate.
If you are having trouble with the link to vote YES for Collaborative Conferencing and YES for MNEA, here is some guidance from the district:
“Please make sure they are using Internet Explorer. They then have to sign in to SharePoint site in order to access the survey. They also cannot use the ‘back’ function on the browser, just use the “Next” or “Submit” buttons on the survey. If they still are having an issue, please get with your building TSS for troubleshooting.
If that doesn’t resolve the issue, please have them contact the IT Helpdesk. I also have the IT person that set up the survey looking to see if there are any underlying issues with the SharePoint site that the survey resides on.”
Don’t let this opportunity to make a difference slip by.
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Hope y’all have a great Thanksgiving and we’ll see you on the flip side.