As we close out a year that has rocked so many lives, in so many ways, I’d like to spend the last days of the year reprinting the three most widely read pieces from the last year. One a day. Sometimes looking back provides context and opens our our eyes to perceiving the events of today through a fresh lens.
The number 3 most read column comes from May and looks at a number of issues on both the state and local level. Ironically it’s one in which I talk about the work CM Bob Mendes did this past year on the city’s budget. We take a look at the culture Commissioner Schwinn has created at the TDOE, one that hasn’t improved. It is my pleasure to share it with you once again.
Things in Nashville should get interesting this week as budget talks start in earnest. Mayor Cooper has turned in a budget book nearly 700 pages long and council members are scrambling to unpack it and decide if they plan to propose any changes or produce their own budget for consideration.
Nobody is looking at the numbers closer than the council’s budget chair, Bob Mendes. Mendes has championed tax increases both of the last two years and now finds himself in the unique position of determining whether or not he’ll support the one proposed by Cooper as part of this year’s budget book.
This past weekend, Mendes produced a thoughtful piece that gives some insight as Nashville leaders compose a budget unlike any previously seen by the city. One based on sale tax projection figures that are more than likely inaccurate. As has become his trademark, Mendes’s budget thoughts are nuanced, well-thought-out, and compassionate. There is a reason why he has become a leading voice on the council floor, and Mendes continues to use that clout wisely.
In the days since Mayor Cooper offered his “continuity of essential services” budget on April 28, I’ve heard from a lot of people. About the substance of the proposed $1.00 property tax rate increase, I’ve heard it all. Some people hate it. Some accept it. Some think the increase should be higher. That’s the same range of feedback I’ve heard over the last two years when I was proposing rate increases. I have also heard from people about the politics involved. With that, there is uniformity. The consistent message is that I should sit back as much as a Budget & Finance Committee Chair can sit back, and let the Mayor do the work and own the tax increase forever.
In reading comments about the upcoming metro budget, I come away with a sense that like COVID-19 itself, people have yet to wrap their heads around the severity of the current situation. Many are grasping at the idea that you can turn the economy off and on like a spigot. That if the government just opens things back up, the economy will just return back to pre-crisis levels. Others believe that we can indefinitely shelter at home without a financial penalty. Both share the apparent belief that the millions lost in sales tax revenue can be easily instantly replenished.
That’s just not the case. Any number of scenarios could play out. Once the majority of businesses have re-opened, large numbers of people could resume pre-corona spending patterns. But even in a best-case scenario, we are still several months away from seeing the return of large scale gatherings and special events. Without those large events, the coffers don’t stand a chance of being replenished.
People could rush right out and engage, giving us an initial feeling of euphoria, only to see infections increase 10 fold and thereby setting a return to normal back even further.
Or we could continue to hunker down while the economy continues to crater creating a larger hole to from which to recover.
Those are only three possible scenarios out of dozens that could happen. Which you deem most likely to transpire is likely dependent on your individual world view. Myself, I have no idea what will happen and accept that all proposed actions come fraught with potentially disastrous results. My only concern is that we act in a manner that is well-considered, compassionate, equitable, and takes all possible outcomes into account, not just the ones that align with our political bent.
Several council members have already indicated that they will be submitting alternative budgets. CM Steve Glover, the de facto voice of metro’s conservatives, lends the loudest voice. Not surprisingly, his budget calls for a lower tax increase, one that is perhaps temporary. Unfortunately, he has yet to identify any alternate revenue streams. In his own words,
“This is a complicated bowl of spaghetti here. Cuts will have to made that all sections of Nashville can survive with.”
Two other alternative budgets might come from council members Emily Benedict, who sits on the budget committee, and from the newly formed minority caucus budget sub-committee led by former budget chair Tanaka Vercher.
All voices should be welcomed in proceeding forward, but I also hope the advice of Mendes will be heeded when he cautions that now is absolutely the wrong time for a political fight,
“If the mayor’s budget is within a country of a mile, that is OK with me.”
The deadline for submitting an alternative budget is Wednesday. The tax increase is rightfully unattractive, but alternatives bring their own issues. Things are unlikely to get easier, but hopefully, by the end of the week, we’ll have a clearer picture of what direction city leaders will be steering us towards.
THE GHOST OF JIMMY BRESLIN
Back in 1969, New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin released a book titled, The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The book was a tale about a couple of wannabe gangsters who “couldn’t run a gas station at a profit even if he stole the customers’ cars”. The book was a huge hit that eventually was adapted to the big screen – providing Robert DeNiro with his first film role.
Every week it feels like Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has come to Tennessee to ink the sequel. The latest chapter unfurled at the end of last week.
Much has been written about the high turnover at the TNDOE, and the numerous people Schwinn has brought in to help run the department. One of those people brought in was a close friend of hers from Texas, Katie Houghtlin. Houghtlin was tagged to head up a division dedicated to one of the commissioner’s primary initiatives, Whole Child Education.
In looking at her resume, it quickly becomes apparent why Schwinn and Houghtlin bonded. Like many of the recent hires at the TNDOE, Katie comes straight out of the education disruptors world. Like Schwinn, after getting her career start as a TFA corpsman she has proven to be quite the transient, continually in search of the next BBD – bigger better deal.
After serving 6 years with Austin’s KIPP public schools, ending in 2015, her average tenure has been less than 14 months per stop. That equates to 5 stops – including a year studying overseas in the Netherlands and a year in Kenya – in 5 years, primarily in Texas.
Over the past year, Commissioner Schwinn has embraced the concept of “whole child” education as the primary driver of her administration’s agenda. Per Chalkbeat,
More than a year later, Schwinn said it’s becoming more apparent that — whether it’s called mental health or the “whole child” approach — schools need to do more to help their students feel healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged in order to achieve long-term success.
One of my long term criticisms with the way school’s approach “whole Child” education, and it SEL components, is that it focuses primarily on relationships between either student/student, or student/teacher. Scant attention is paid to the relationships between adults. Unfortunately, kids pay attention to adult relationships more than we give credit and bad behavior is often emulated. More attention is always devoted to what you do as opposed to what you say, and even more, attention is devoted to what you do when you think nobody is looking.
On Friday an Investigative Summary by the department of educations human resources department began to circulate. It was a report into allegations of verbal abuse, micromanagement, sabotage, as well as harsh and inappropriate behavior by the accusers. While the summary names no names, it does acknowledge that the complaint is against a member of the TNDOE’s executive leadership team. It also substantiates the complaints filed.
To recap, Commissioner Schwinn identifies a priority and recruits a friend from Texas to head up the initiative, despite said friend ‘s resume showing no indication of qualification. Friend fails to adhere to basic tenets of SEL in professional relationships while leading an initiative devoted to SEL.
At the start of a pandemic, the head of the department overseeing school nurses departs. Despite giving more than 30 days notice, a month after her departure no replacement has been identified.
The commissioner brings in from Florida someone to head up the ESSA initiative, a priority of Governor Lee. That person lasts less than a year before taking a leadership position with Memphis Schools, a district that vehemently opposes the ESSA legislation along with the rest of the governor’s education agenda.
Jimmy Breslin would be proud.
Disagreements of philosophies and policies are to be expected. Basic competency is also to be expected. Each week it becomes more and more apparent that Commissioner Schwinn and her leadership team are incapable of providing the latter, making discussions about the former impossible. Yet, the governor refuses to intervene. I can’t help but wonder if his response would be the same if this level of leadership was being delivered in one of his companies departments. Somehow, I doubt it.
THE NEVER DYING VOUCHER BEAST
The latest narrative by the voucher crew is that judge Anne Miller’s ruling of Tennessee’s ESSA program unconstitutionality is that it creates even more turmoil in the lives of those that are just seeking better opportunities for their children. It’s one delivered by leading voucher proponent Shaka Mitchell in this week’s Tennessean,
“The ESA program recognizes that thousands of students need a lifeline now. They don’t have time to wait for another superintendent’s plan, another clever re-branding campaign, or for all 95 counties in the state to sound the alarm.”
The words sound big and noble, but they are not rooted in reality. While accusing school districts of trying to institute a one-size-fits-all mentality, Mitchell fails to acknowledge that both Memphis and Nashville already offer a plethora of alternatives – traditional, charter, magnet, and private school options, as well as homeschooling – are all readily available. Parents and don’t need more options, they need the ones they have to be improved. But to do that you have to be honest about your intentions.
I look at it this way. If a beautiful lawn is my primary goal, then I hire a lawn service that delivers a beautiful lawn. The price of the service is a factor, but it’s not the primary driver.
If my goal is to get an adequate looking lawn at a low price, then I alter my requirements. I accept inferior products and sporadic services because after all, I’m not looking for great, merely acceptable.
If my goal is to have a beautiful lawn, I expect the company I hire to focus solely on administrating to my lawn. If I merely looking for adequate then I search for a company that will also wash windows, trim tree’s and sweep the driveway. Then I celebrate all the services I’m getting for such a low cost, the state of my lawn…it becomes a secondary concern. It doesn’t look great, but I don’t want to raise a fuss because then I’ll lose all the other services for which I’m not paying.
The reality is that public education has never been fully funded. The last decade has seen us run from scheme to scheme in an effort to get more services for less money. As a result, our “lawn” has suffered.
While bemoaning the inconveniences that Judge Martin’s ruling has inflicted on students and their families, Shaka Mitchell refuses to acknowledge his own role in acerbating that turmoil. For over a decade – first with Rocketship Academies and now as head of American Federation of Children – Mitchell has been over-promising and under-delivering. Never acknowledging the failures of his proposed solutions with expectations that families who can least afford it will continually follow him into deeper unproven waters. When shortcomings arise, they are written off as the cost of doing business and blame is laid at the feet of the opposition. It’s high time he starts to acknowledge his contributions, they are not the ones he wanted but they are the ones that he has delivered.
Governor Lee, with Mitchell’s help, have rushed to implement the ESA program like old west outlaws making a break for the Mexican border. Thinking that if they can just get it up and running, the program will become untouchable. Unfortunately for them, last week the posse led by Judge Martin caught them before they were beyond reach. The program has been indefinitely delayed, legislators are calling for its funding to be allocated elsewhere, and families who believed Mitchell’s promises are left to scramble, much like those who believed in the promise of Rocketship Academies.
Imagine instead, if he’d utilized his considerable intellect and charisma to build instead of dismantling. Imagine if Mitchell and others fought as hard for existing choices instead of constantly chasing the next shiny object, the ever-elusive bottle of elixir. Imagine if they fought to give more funding to schools instead of trying to further deplete already overstretched resources. I can only imagine what a beautiful “lawn” we might end up with, instead, the rest of us are left with the endless task of pulling weeds that threaten to destroy our existing lawn, while he pursues the next disruption.
Tomorrow the MNPS school board will hear an update on MNPSreimaginED. The plan calls for the consolidating of several schools that are currently underutilized. As a result, several buildings will become unoccupied. Drafters of the plan have several options listed for those buildings, but one idea that I’ve heard bandied about that is not included, in my opinion, bears further consideration. Currently, students who are repeatedly disruptive are either suspended or shifted around their current school building. There are a couple of alternative learning centers in the district, but those are reserved for those students exhibiting the most severe discipline challenges.
What if there were a couple of locations where disruptive students could by relocated to for a limited time – anywhere from two weeks to 60 days – and receive needed services while continuing their education with an eye towards returning to their home school? Obviously, the plan would need to be fleshed out with a lot more detail and policies would have to be put in place to ensure that the extra classrooms don’t become dumping grounds for difficult students, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities.
Alabama native and now Nashville resident Jason Isbell is releasing new music this week. Last Friday I got an advanced copy made available for sale at local record stores. While it didn’t grab me from initial listen, I’ve come to really appreciate it and enjoy it. It’s the kind of record that takes a while to peel all the layers back. In preparation for the impending release, the New York Times printed a piece this weekend on him and what he’s gone through to record this latest project. Apparently, it took a toll on his home life. The article closes with words of wisdom by Isbell for all of us,
“My wife wants me to do my best work. My job is to figure out how to do that and still be the best person I can be. Anything less is not what she wants.”
That is the eternal balance we all seek to strike. Make sure you go get the new record on Friday, you won’t be sorry.
MNPS has designated May 16, 18 -20 as days for teachers to responsibly retrieve items from individual schools. There has a degree of confusion over exactly what this means. MNEA and MNPS are closely working together to alleviate the confusion. It’s in that light the MNEA released the following,
We have heard concerns from many educators regarding the “Responsible Retrieval” plan for May 16, 18-20. We have spoken with Dr. Battle to clarify several important things.
The primary purpose for these days is to allow educators and parents the opportunity to retrieve necessary items from schools, not to complete usual end-of-year tasks such as checking in textbooks or completing cumulative files. Participation by educators is voluntary and should be done in a way that is flexible and ensures health and safety of all involved.
MNPS worked with the Davidson County Health Department to create health and safety guidelines for this process that all principals must follow. We have requested those guidelines and will be sharing them when we receive them.
MNPS is working on creating additional communication reiterating this information and will be releasing it to all employees soon.
If you have additional questions or concerns about what you are being asked to do, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org