“Oh, come off your perch!” said the other man, who wore glasses. “Your premises won’t come out in the wash. You wind-jammers who apply bandy-legged theories to concrete categorical syllogisms send logical conclusions skallybootin’ into the infinitesimal ragbag. You can’t pull my leg with an old sophism with whiskers on it.”
My relationship with my children is rooted in trust. I realized long ago that I didn’t have the wherewithal to helicopter parent. Instead, I choose to set expectations and then give them room to live within those expectations. Obviously, at times the kids fail to meet those expectations, but since our relationships are rooted primarily in trust, the resulting conversations are more corrective than punitive. It’s an approach that’s proven successful for us.
Believe it or not, I prefer to approach advocacy work similarly. Despite what some may think, my goal with this blog was never to serve as a community watchdog. That’s an exhausting task that takes a tremendous toll on a person’s mental health. My preference has always been one where both parties are transparent and adhere to the tenets they espouse – transparency, open communication, the inclusion of different views. On paper, it doesn’t appear to be a difficult proposition to expect an organization charged with creating better citizens to act in a manner that reflects those aspirations.
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always reflect what’s on paper. People in power have a tendency to try and cling to power. As a result, the same mistakes get made over and over and over. The question then becomes, is leadership acting with malfeasance or, for lack of a better word, ignorance.
In the recent past, MNPS was led by leadership whose body of work seemed to indicate the latter. The current administration, to date, seems to be attempting to do the opposite by regularly listening to their better angels. Therefore missteps and miscalculations occur with less regularity and are more easily forgivable. If nothing else, this administration is better at staying out of the news than its predecessors.
Because of this seeming commitment to doing the right thing, I, and others, have relaxed scrutiny. Choosing instead to extend a level of trust not enjoyed in the past. Unfortunately, it’s starting to look like this extension of trust, not just me, but by the school board as well, may come back to bite us in the ass.
Cue Exhibit A, a recently signed contract with Meharry Medical College Ventures Inc for 18 million dollars that was approved by the MNPS School Board on January 12th as part of the consent agenda. On the agenda it was billed as a 12-month contract, running from January 13th, 2021 through December 31, 2021. The proposed services would not only include testing and data management but also the administering of vaccines. The source of funds is listed as CARES Act Funds, this will become important in a minute.
For those of you not familiar with the “consent agenda”, let me explain. The board routinely deals with several contracts, some for very small amounts. If they had to take each contract up individually, meetings would bog down for hours. The consent agenda creates a means to pass those contracts that require little explanation expediently. Let me repeat that part about this tool being reserved for routine contracts whose needs are clear and require little explanation.
I would argue that an 18 million dollar contract never belongs on the consent agenda, no matter how many questions are answered for board members before the meeting. It’s unreasonable to expect every board member to know exactly what questions ask and understand the possible implications. If you are truly being transparent, and you value stakeholder input, the floor discussion only provides a means to make the policy better. There was no conversation on the board floor about this contract.
What should have been talked about?
The first order of discussion should have been around the entity being awarded the contract, Meharry Medical College Ventures. To those who aren’t aware MMCV is not the same as Meharry Medical College. It is a separate for-profit entity recently created in order for the college to be able to enter into agreements like this one. In the non-profit world, it is not uncommon to see such entities created. Fortunately here, MMCV is overseen by the same board that oversees the college, thus cutting down on questions. There is no indication that anything duplicitous is happening here, but an explanation should have been provided for clarity’s sake.
Secondly, this contract is a “piggyback” contract, using an existing Metro Nashville contract. What that means is that instead of conducting an RFP process in order to allow others a chance to bid on the contract, and secure the most fiscally prudent contract, a previous contract is used in order to circumvent the RFP process. Under past administrations, the practice of piggy-backing, while legal, contributed to several questionable outcomes. It was a practice that MNPS had vowed to move away from. Not saying anything bad is transpiring here, but again, for the sake of clarity, an explanation should have proffered as to why this practice was being revived.
There should have been more questions about the length of the contract. The agenda summary gives the impression that the contract is for nearly 12 months, while the actual contract is for 4 months, 2/15 – 6/30, with a possible extension to 12/30/2021. Four months with a roll-over of 6 more months is a little different than what the board voted on. But you say, “tomato”, I say “tomoto”, right? I don’t think so.
Let’s talk about the money now, $18 million is not an unsubstantial pile of lettuce. When questioned about the money district leadership has put forth the argument that it’s a limit, not an actuality. Pere MNPS communications,
As for the contract itself, it is “up to” $18 million, which is what we communicated back in December and what the Board approved in January. That does not mean we will necessarily spend that amount. The funding is broken out into multiple categories in the scope of work and is contingent on multiple factors and requirements for work performed that they must meet to receive payment.
Fair enough, but a look at the contract’s outline of costs shows that MNPS will pay one-time start-up fees of around $5.2 million and then reoccurring monthly costs just shy of $2 million. Neither of those outlined costs includes the price of individual tests – $165 or $300 per test, dependent on the rate of return on results. Multiply that by roughly 10k kids – more on that in a minute – and costs add up quickly.
Here’s the other part of that explanation doesn’t hold water. The funding source, as previously mentioned, is the Federal CARES Act. That funding comes with a clause that requires districts to either spend or return. Since nobody likes to return money, not spending it arguably creates as many problems as spending it. Let’s be honest. there is every intention of spending as close to $18 million as possible, for multiple reasons.
Let’s talk about those 10K kids I just mentioned. You might be asking, why 10K when roughly 40K are returning to MNPS school buildings?
To participate in the Meharry program, the district needs to secure a waiver from parents allowing their child to be tested. Who’s going to actually sign that waiver?
The conundrum here is that many parents need to send their children back to buildings so that they can work. If my child is randomly tested and found to be positive for COVID-19, guess what? Everybody gets to quarantine and I don’t get to work, thus defeating the purpose of sending my child back to in-person schooling. Not to mention that the test itself is invasive, and as a parent of younger children, I wouldn’t want it administered without either my or my wife’s presence. So I predict a participation rate of around 25%.
Embedded in the contract is a large data collection piece. Once again, we are collecting data on children with little explanation of its purpose. Perhaps there should have been a little discussion about how that data will be stored and utilized. But when it comes to kid’s data the district seems to be taking more and more of a proprietary stance. As if they are entitled to it.
Lastly, there should have been discussion around whether this contract serves the actual needs of the district or not. District leadership likes to speak of the existence of a principal advisory board, as well as one for both teachers and parents, was this proposal run by any of them? Was actual feedback ever solicited and considered? Unfortunately, we already know the answers to those questions.
Perhaps, if opinions had been solicited, the more pressing need for substitute teachers would have been raised. The district has had nearly 6 months to secure substitutes, yet schools are currently being crippled by the unavailability of substitutes. Perhaps some of this $18 million could have been used to increase the pay of subs or offer bonuses. At a recent board meeting, head of HR Chris Barnes talked about adding 15 or 20 subs to the ranks that day. Great news, except that some schools regularly need that amount daily. It’s a problem that isn’t likely to improve by the end of the year, yet one we are failing to address.
Arguably, this plan with Meharry, if executed properly could have eased some of the demand for subs by catching spread early and therefore lessening the need for quarantine. Perhaps, but they’re still would have an elevated number of subs needed and it should have been clear the districts didn’t have the resources to meet that need. perhaps this could have been a $10 million contract, freeing up $8 million to incentivize subs.
If I was a board member, I would also want to know why the Meharry project, funded by federal dollars, had the Chief of Staff’s signature on it as opposed to the head of Federal Programs. Perhaps it’s because the head of Federal Program’s time is being taken up overseeing the Navigator program which probably ought to fall under the purview of the head of Student Services. Perhaps a formal listing of job responsibilities would be in order here.
I don’t believe for a minute that anyone had nefarious intentions around this contract. In my estimation somebody tried to get cute and meet a multitude of needs – mayoral favor, spending down of monies, aiding a worthy non-profit – while serving the district. They always warn to be wary of the well-intentioned man.
However, good intentions do not negate the risk of negative consequences. The general public doesn’t likely grasp the limitations of the recently awarded federal money. To them, it appears that the schools are flush with cash, so much so, that they can spend $18 million on a limited 4-month contract, so why invest more? That perception makes it hard to advocate for needed increased funding for reoccurring expenses not covered by federal dollars. Something that is going to be difficult enough to do while Nashville residents are facing a substantial property tax hike amidst a time of financial uncertainty.
It also can’t be forgotten that Governor Lee, and by extension the TNDOE, will utilize every opportunity to show MNPS in a bad light to build their case for vouchers. A public conversation before implementation would have gone a long way towards thwarting the governor’s efforts.
Board member Gini Pupo-Walker’s response to constituents who questioned the contract was equally unhelpful. Instead of answering the question, she attempted to throw shade at the constituent. Nobody was questioning the contract because it was going to an HBC, but rather because it was a large expenditure for which little explanation had been offered. The questions raised by Ms. Pate were not unreasonable ones and likely could have been avoided had there been a discussion on the board floor prior to contract approval.
Interestingly enough, it seems that SCS is poised to provide similar services at a mere fraction of the cost being incurred by MNPS – $3 million for the year.
The ultimate negative outcome of this case will be the increased scrutiny that it will provoke. The level of trust extended will be reduced. District leadership can argue all they want that they were forthcoming and transparent, yet it’s clear many don’t feel that way. As Maya Angelou once said, “Pople will forget what you say and what you do, they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”
Like it or not, this instance has not instilled a good feeling in various stakeholders. Hopefully, leadership will assess and learn from it. Though learning doesn’t seem to be an inherent process in the education world. May this instance provide the exception.
TNDOE EMPLOYMENT BLUES
Earlier in the week, I raised the question of why the TNDOE’s procurement process has gotten so sloppy. Remember they withdrew the RFP for Civics instruction and the latest RFP is nearly indecipherable. I now know part of the reason, the revolving door of the DOE is once again to blame.
Eli Rousey, who many considered a lifer in his role of Procurement Coordinator is among the latest to exit. Word is that over the last several months he’d been cut out of the process. The evidence certainly supports that theory. But he’s not the only departure.
Joy Coates Director, Data Strategy Teacher Effectiveness (Lead on the SAS TVASS contract management is also leaving, as is Courtney Rayburn – Assistant Director Teacher Effectiveness/NIET specialist. Rayburn’s entire team has basically been replaced during HR Director David Donaldson’s tenure.
Mike Hermann – Sr. Director of School Safety – has decided to take retirement.
In light of all that the TNDOE is tasked with, in the upcoming months, these departures can’t be viewed as helpful.
Now for a chuckle, data chief, and expatriate, Sophie Mann recently got a “Congratulate Sophie on her new position” shoutout from Linked In. Apparently, she is now a volunteer chapter advisor in an organization that does not have a chapter in Nashville, but they do have one in Chicago. Perhaps some member of the General Assembly will follow up with questions on her residency status.
And now for a where are they now moment. You may remember former Department Assistant Superintendent Robert Lundin who was terminated from the TNDOE over questions around his handling of Special Education vouchers. It seems that Mr. Lundin has now decided that he wants to be a superintendent. After failed attempts in Albuquerque, NM, and Polk County Florida, he’s emerged as a finalist for the Superintendent job in Durango, Colorado.
Hopefully, his presentation to the Durango Board on Monday will go over better than his presentation this week to the East Baton Rouge School District. Lundin is currently working for Burns/Van Fleet Education Consulting, a firm that provides advising services to multiple urban superintendents and school boards about long-term strategies to strengthen their districts. BVF was recently hired by the new EBR Supe, and former Nashville Chief of Schools, Sito Narcisse to help craft the district’s transition plan. Lundin presented the BVF created transition plan to a somewhat skeptical crowd last night.
Isn’t amazing how there is always a Tennessee connection?
WHO’S THIS DIRECTED AT?
In this session of the TN General Assembly, there are a plethora of bills that appear to be solutions in search of problems. On Wednesday, one of those bills was up for discussion in the State Senate. SB 769 proposes to ensure that nobody in the state is utilizing Common Core state standards in their instructional materials. Ok. The question here is, what district is? After all, districts are required to utilize materials off of the state-approved textbook and materials list. The TNDOE has already testified that in putting together the list, the primary concern is that materials align with Tennessee State Standards. So what’s the rub?
Well if you pay close attention to department spokesman Charlie Buffalino when he testified this week to the State Senate, you might get a clue.
Buffalino testified in response to Senator Mike Bell raising concerns over the usage of Great Mind’s ELA materials, Wit and Wisdom. Great Minds was formed under the original moniker of Common Core inc and only changed its name when the standards fell out of favor. Its long-term Executive director, Lynne Munson is considered one of the original proponents of Common Core standards. This was rightfully giving Bell some cause for pause. Especially since the following used to be included on their web site,
A group of education leaders founded the non-profit Great Minds in 2008 to define and encourage content-rich comprehensive education for all American schoolchildren. In pursuit of that mission, Great Minds brings schoolteachers together in collaboration with scholars to craft exemplary instructional materials and share them with the field. Great Minds’ Eureka Math curriculum has won accolades at the state and national levels, and is the only comprehensive math curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards at every grade. The non profit also just released Wit & Wisdom, a new English curriculum that taps the power of literature, history and science to meet the expectations of the new standards.
Bufalino ignores that history in defending the curriculum. He also pointed out that Wit and Wisdom weren’t on the state’s approved list for K-2 in an attempt to throw responsibility back in the lap of districts. But it’s his opening remarks that are the most interesting. In them, Bufalino thanks the Senators for carrying this bill, saying, “Closing this final loophole for the use of Common Core is certainly a priority for this administration and something Governor Lee has spoken about on numerous occasions.”
What is left unsaid is how the TNDOE feels about the use of Common Core. Staking an anti-Common Core position would be extremely difficult for Ms. Schwinn and the department. They currently have a contract with David Liben and his wife Meredith, both of who have played an integral role in the promotion of Common Core. Both are written into the Federal Grant for ELA recently awarded to the department. Schwinn has on numerous occasions sought the counsel of David Steiner, another long-time Common Core proponent. Schwinn’s charter school promotes itself as being firmly rooted in Common Core. That’s a lot of Common Core to try and walk away from.
Perhaps she and the Governor should have a conversation around the merits of Common Core. After all, he got her to publically declare herself a Republican despite her school board run in Sacramento being funder by Democrats for Educational Reform, maybe he can turn her into a Common Core critic.
It’ll be interesting to see this one play out, but like education writer Peter Greene says, “Common Core is Dead. Long Live Common Core.“
That’s it for now.
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