“Don’t worry about what people think, because once it’s all over the people who love you will make you what they want you to be, and the people who don’t love you will, too.”
“No one can predict who is going to touch your heart in a way that changes your very being.”
In the wake of last night’s news that legendary songwriter John Prine had passed due to complications from COVID-19, I read a social media post from a friend acknowledging that everyone in Nashville had a John Prine story. That statement is probably true for most of the world, but particularly so for Nashville, where Prine transcended the music scene to become a part of the fabric of the city. His kindness, wry wit, and skill with the turn of a phrase could serve as a personification of the city.
I knew John in the Nineties when he was a semi-regular at the Ace of Clubs. One of my fondest remembrances of those days is hanging out front of the club, which was actually the back alley, with his brother Billy, Al Kooper, and George Marinelli riffing on passers-by. John was always kind and quick with that sly smile of his. On those occasions when he took the stage, his performances never failed to inspire.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to run into John at a benefit for Thistle Farms – an organization he was deeply committed to. We found ourselves between responsibilities, with a few minutes to catch up. I asked him about his brother and he told me he was doing well. We swapped the statuses of other mutual friends, some who were doing well and others not so much. I’d recently been on a record-buying binge and confessed that I’d come across one of his records at Great Escape and considered buying it, but inexplicably didn’t.
“Which one?”, he asked
“Ah, I forget the name…its the one where you are sprawled out in a convertible decked out in denim.”
“yea. that’s it.”
“Why didn’t you buy it?”, his wife Fiona chimed in.
“You know that’s a good question. I think I’ll go get it tomorrow if it’s still there.” It was and I did.
It was an easy conversation that felt more akin to talking to an old acquaintance as opposed to someone with the afford revered status of Prine. With him, there were no airs. Mine is a tale not dissimilar to ones that countless others across the city could tell. The term, “one of ours” gets tossed around a little freely, but John Prine truly was one of ours.
He’ll be missed and his departure makes Nashville a little less special. He truly was a generational talent.
Early in the week, there was a feeling that the threat from the coronavirus was starting to recede. Prine’s unfortunate passing should serve as a reminder that we ain’t out of the woods yet.
And take solace in Prine’s recently voiced promise,
When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?
And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town
The Tennessee Department of Education, and it’s leader Penny Schwinn, keep conducting business like they are auditioning to be the next big Netflix special. It’s like she watched the Tiger King and turned to Charlie, David, and Lisa, and said, “Hold my beer.”
On Monday I told you about the department’s disastrous attempt at conducting a survey about how stimulus money from the federal government – of which only 10% was to be used at the TNDOE’s discretion – should be spent. When stakeholders revolted at the department’s survey – reportedly they received over 60k negative responses – the survey was quickly edited and a cover story concocted.
According to department spokeswoman Victoria Robinson, the department originally sent out two different surveys, one for school superintendents and one for the general public.
“The department asked questions aligned to the federal legislation to determine if districts wanted or needed additional funding to support the expanded needs of students academically and non-academically, all of which would be determined at a local level,” Robinson said. “The initial version of the survey was not consistently interpreted as intended and there was some confusion that the department intended to mandate additional learning time. To take that feedback into account, the department amended the survey and noted changes in the revised survey language.”
Hmmm…once again people are misconstruing directives emanating from the DOE. If you watched any of the General Assembly meetings this year, prior to the shutdown brought on by the pandemic, you saw quite a few incidents were lawmakers “misunderstood” what Schwinn and her team were talking about. So much so that at the beginning of a Senate Education Committee meeting Chairwoman Gresham felt compelled to have perjury rules read and clarified. A move almost without precedent but one that didn’t deter Schwinn from telling Gresham that the department hadn’t been talking to vendors in relationship to HB2229 despite a video depicting the opposite on the TNDOE web site. Not only was she talking to vendors, but she was telling them the funding and scope of upcoming RFPs.
Despite Robinson’s Robinson’s assurances, it didn’t take long for holes to spring in Schwinns hastily concocted tale. Tuesday morning EduWeek released an interview with Julia Rafal-Baer, who is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit advocacy group whose members lead education systems serving 14,000 schools. In it Rafal – Baer bragged about the visionary leadership of Tennessee’s Superintendent of Education Penny Schwinn.
“In Tennessee, our member and future chief alum, Penny Schwinn, understands that making up for lost time will be a multiyear effort that starts immediately. Her three-year learning plan—which should be a model for other states—retools the school year calendar with a mix of in-person and online learning, including a surge of 20 days of learning over the summer, to make up for lost days. “
By the end of the day, the interview had been edited. You see the problem was, Penny might be visionary, but she rarely shares that vision with legislators, educators, or most of her staff. In this case, everyone was left scratching their head wondering “what the hell” and “didn’t she just say”. The end of the day brought forth another email from Schwinn claiming it was all a big misunderstanding and that the department doesn’t have the authority to mandate additional learning time. That’s fine and good, but the department doesn’t have the authority to increase the budget for voucher implementation nor to dictate curriculum to LEAs. That hasn’t stopped them from pursuing b
Not to mention the authority to dictate how 90% of the funds made available through the COVID stimulus fund are utilized. Yet here we are.
But was it just a misunderstanding? A plan does exist (TNDOE COVID-19 Summary External copy) and it’s clear that Schwinn shared it with her Chiefs for Change cohort, but not Tennessee educators.
In her plan, she declares that student assessment is going to have an increased priority. She gives the impression that in order for districts to get their federal money from the COVID-19 stimulus package they need to submit a written plan to the TNDOE, though I find no evidence of that in the guidelines accompanying the CARES Act.
In making her case for the plan adoption, she does some questionable math, conveniently forgetting that most of March and April are taken up with test prep and standardized testing. It’s an interesting plan, but one that bears the hallmarks of most of Schwinn’s plans – lofty goals, lots of buzz words, and little explanation of how those lofty goals will be reached.
What this whole fiasco clearly illuminates is that Schwinn is ill-equipped to do the job she was appointed to, yet still feels that she can act with impunity and owes no explanation for her decisions to legislators, parents, or the state’s professional educators. I would lay much of her arrogance at the feet at Memphis Rep and chair of the statehouse education committee, Mark White. White has allowed Schwinn free reign and even carried the poorly conceived reading bill while the General Assembly was in session.
White is up for re-election this year and faces a formidable challenge from democrat Danielle Schonbaum. If White ends up losing, Schwinn’s performance will have played no small part.
It’s worth noting, that it within the realm of possibility that White agrees with Schwinn’s strategies. In 2016 White endorsed Jeb Bush for President. Bush is the founder of Chiefs for Change and many of Schwinn’s initiatives come from those of the education reform organization. If that is the case, then White should say so, instead of just turning a blind eye to her incompetence.
I also can’t help but wonder where SCORE is this fiasco. They have blindly supported her throughout her tenure going as far as to hold a literacy summit in order to promote her favored literacy curriculums. Are they on board with increased school hours? With mandatory summer school? Word on the street is that SCORE used to have to go through the Superintendent of Schools to get to the governor, these days they go directly to the governor. If they do now have that kind of access, I would think they would do a better job of guarding his rear. Yet hey’ve been awful quiet through out the latest dust-up.
To add just a little spice to the early week action, Schwinn tweeted out her praise for AP’s in honor of National Assistant Principal Week. She thanked those who had her back when she was a teacher and a principal. It was a nice sentiment but begged the question, when did Schwinn serve in that role. A perusal of her reume doesn’t show her actually holding that title. Assumptions by most are that sometime during her tenure as a founder of a California charter school she held the spot – it might have been a Tuesday or Wednesday.
One has to wonder how long Schwinn’s Big Top will be allowed to remain erect before an adult shows up and closes the show due to mismanagement and dishonesty. At this point, the stakes are too high to allow incompetence to flourish at the top. When kids return to school they are going to face a multitude of challenges, many of which are unprecedented. In order to safely navigate that terrain, LEA’s are going to need a department of education that is fully vested in a support role and not a group of idealogues looking to leave their mark on history. Tennessee’s children should not be used as personal guinea pigs.
If the governor refuses to take action, hopefully, the General Assembly will force the question.
MNPS BUDGET WOES
This was the week it dawned on people that you can’t shut down the economy on the front end of a pandemic and not have sacrifices mandated at the back end. Closing bars, restaurants, and other elements of the service industry has created a crater in the Nashville economy that is going to resonate long after the health threat abates. To such a level that Mayor John Cooper has reversed his pre-election position on a property tax increase and signaled that a large increase will be a part of this year’s Metro budget proposal.
In addition to the promised tax hike, this week, news came out that Nashville Mayor John Cooper had informed district leadership of the need to cut $100 million dollars from both this year’s budget and next years – an extremely difficult move for an already chronically underfunded district.
In response to the news, people started lamenting the failure for the last 2 years to pass a property tax increase. Saying it is easier to absorb a small hit in calmer times then a big hit in turbulent ones. That sounds good if you say it fast, but in looking at the numbers, even if the city had passed the proposed increase last year, it wouldn’t have generated enough income to prevent the need to pass an additional increase this year.
Nashville collects roughly 480 million dollars a year in sales tax revenues. Fifty percent of that, by state law, must go to MNPS. Metro government currently commits about 54%. It’s tempting to try and average revenue out monthly over the course of a year, but that wouldn’t be accurate. May, with Country Music Fest, is going to have higher revenue than a month without a similar high profile event. This makes it extremely difficult to adequately predict monthly revenues. Best available predictions on revenue lost run anywhere from 200k to 300k.
Looking at past tax increase proposals, a 50 cent increase results in about 155 million dollars in new revenue. The current property tax rate is $3.155 per $100 of assessed value in the Urban Services District, or neighborhoods that receive more city services. Residents who live in cities within the General Service District such as Belle Meade, Forest Hills, and Oak Hill pay Metro Nashville $2.755 per $100 of assessed value. You can’t raise the rate past 4.69 without a voter referendum.
Keep in mind, that MNPS receives approximately 39% of the city’s revenue and public safety is the next closest at 23%. Under present circumstances, I can see public safety needing a bigger cut due to overtime needs of fire, police, and other first responders. In light of recent numbers showing Blacks as being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, increased funding will most likely need to be invested in Metro General Hospital. I offer those instances in order to caution against expecting all new monies going to MNPS.
It is hard for me to envision a scenario where the property tax increase is less than $1.00. That would mean about a $60/month increase for a median-priced home of $275k, which would result in roughly $310 million in new revenue. That’s a hard ask, but a necessary one. I would caution against a higher raise due to a potential negative impact on small businesses. If too many can’t pay the new rate and go out of business, there will be a negative impact on sales tax revenues, which could hamper the effectiveness of an increased property tax.
So where is additional revenue or cuts going to come from?
Logically the first source would be the state’s rainy day fund. Tennessee currently sits on a surplus of $750 million dollars. The state could invest half of that in supporting local school districts and still have plenty of money for another rainy day. However, as much sense as that makes, without a widespread appeal from Tennessee taxpayers, I don’t see it happening. Perhaps if voters made it a primary concern during the upcoming election season there would be some hope, but I’m not holding my breath.
Some relief will come from the Federal COVID Stimulus package. The money is supposed to be distributed to local districts based on Title 1 distribution. That translates to MNPS receiving 12% of the approximately $260 million Tennessee is slated to receive. Of course minus, the TNDOE’s 10% cut. Despite what some may argue, there is wide latitude in how those monies can be utilized by LEA’s – in addition to COVID related expenditures, anything ESSA mandated is permissible.
If the Governor was looking for an equitable means of getting additional support to LEA’s, an easy move would be to agree to match the Federal COVID Stimulus package. That would go a long way towards offsetting revenue loss due to businesses shut down by the Governor’s stay at home order and be a sign that he really does care about all kids. Such a move would still leave close to 500 million dollars in the state’s rainy day fund.
It has been purposed that high salaries at central office be cut. To date, Dr. Battle has been very adamant about preserving income for ALL MNPS employees. I think that is the right strategy, as otherwise, you go down a slippery slope of attempting to assign value to positions before doing a complete inventory of responsibilities. It may seem that there are people that are currently not overly engaged, but keep in mind that MNPS has been feeding an ever-growing number of students utilizing just district employees. Furthermore, central office employees have been actively working with the YMCA in order to continue to supply child care for those on the front line of the pandemic. There is a lot of work being done by a lot of people that are not readily visible but shouldn’t be discounted.
There will be a time in the very near future to do a proper inventory of central office responsibilities and I’m sure there will be a restructuring based on the outcome. But we shouldn’t rush in with a machete where a surgical tool is needed.
The idea of cutting charter school funding has also surfaced. Let’s be clear, such an action would be a violation of state law and would most certainly result in punitive action from the state. Action that would negate any savings realized. Based on ideology this might appear to be an attractive idea but based on practicality it should be a non-sequitar.
However, charter schools are not immune to changes in revenue. If MNPS receives less money, the money owed to charter schools will also be reduced. So this year’s payout should be substantially lower.
On a moral level, we must not lose sight that charter schools are populated by Nashvillians that have done nothing wrong but avail themselves of options made available by the district. Defunding these schools would be punitive for them. Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot and your decision was reversed based on ideology. I know I would be pissed. As long as charter schools remain a legal option for families we must recognize the rights of those that make that choice. I don’t necessarily agree with their choice, but odds are they don’t agree with mine either.
It’s imperative though that when looking for savings, we don’t prematurely remove any from the table. It has been long recognized that there are a substantial number of schools in Nashville that are well under population capacity. Maintaining those schools is an expensive proposition and consolidation is an option that should be explored. This is not a popular move but I would argue a necessary one.
There will never be a better time to consider consolidating the district. Two of Nashville’s current board members – Amy Frogge and Jill Speering – are not seeking re-election. Two more – Freda Player and Christiane Buggs – are running unopposed. Shepherd, Elrod, and Pupo-Walker don’t face an election for two more years. This creates a scenario where the political fallout would be minimized.
Furthermore, the current extended break would provide an opportunity to prepare schools for new students. An opportunity that hopefully, we will never have again.
Regardless of when we take the initiative, the consolidation of schools is going to have to be undertaken. The choice is to do it now or continue to kick the can down the road until the district is forced by further declining revenues to do so.
The obvious threat to district revue is coming from cuts due to the pandemic. But, let’s not forget vouchers are slated to begin this fall as well. Current reports indicate that the TNDOE is swamped by applications at this juncture. A lawsuit to halt ESA legislation from moving forward was filed this week, but whether it is successful or not remains to be determined. There is money in the voucher legislation to replace potential lost revenues, but again how much is also to be determined.
The pandemic has brought a great deal of uncertainty to public schools, as a result, there is a lot of anxiety on the part of teachers, students, and parents. Unfortunately, a resolution will not be forthcoming anytime soon, as the sands will continue to shift in the months ahead. Nobody can accurately predict the outcomes or effects of the current crisis.
That said, MNPS stakeholders should take solace in the fact that they have a director of schools who will continue to put teachers, students, and families first. Despite the accusations by others, I believe that 100%. As long as it remains possible to continue to pay MNPS employees, she will do so. She will take the steps to ensure that continually paying people is possible. There may come a time when events beyond her control, or ours, changes that ability. But if necessary, we’ll cross that bridge together in the future confident in the fact that Dr. Battle and her team did everything possible to put the needs of all MNPS stakeholders first. I can’t say that with any degree of certainty about past administrations.
That’s a wrap, I’ll be back on Friday, if not before then. Please be safe and be kind to your neighbor.
Until then, if you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.
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