AUTOPSY OF A SCHOOL BOARD MEETING

“these self-righteous censors often construct a “hero narrative” about themselves in which they are morally pure crusaders who must protect society from the objectionable opinions of the unenlightened masses.”
Greg Lukianoff, Freedom from Speech

 

Yesterday, Nashville’s Mayor Cooper announced that the city would be lifting its mask mandate at 5 AM this morning. The announcement came just hours after he publically stated that Nashville would be leaving the mask mandate in place. In making this decision, he pointed to a revised CDC policy that now allowed for vaccinated people to share indoor space without masks or social distancing.

The CDC was talking about fully vaccinated people, and only about a third of the city meets that criteria, but who’s sweating the details? The mask mandate will remain in effect for Metro Schools. Also still in effect is the policy that each student only gets 4 tickets for high school graduation and nobody gets to attend 8th-grade graduation in person.

Just so we are clear, I can go sit in the Ryman Auditorium side by side with a neighbor who may or may not be vaccinated, but I can’t bring my entire extended family to witness the culmination of my child’s compulsory education. Even if the graduation ceremony is being held outdoors. A once in a lifetime experience is being denied while ensuring, and encouraging, that no one misses a Predators playoff game. Excuse me, but that’s some ass-backward priorities, But if the pandemic has done nothing, it has highlighted what we truly value and what we don’t.

This morning after dropping my wife off at work, I stopped in at the local convenience store. Standing behind the counter were three clerks. One was fully masked. The other maskless. The third was wearing a mask but had it down around the chin. I wish I could have snapped a picture because it fully captured where we are collectively today.

SCHOOL BOARD BLUES

Earlier in the week, the MNPS school board met. The agenda was exceedingly long, thus unpacking what transpired is going to take a little work. But unpack it we must. There were so many elements that should set off alarms, that ignoring those would be a disservice to everyone. So let’s get started.

First of all, there seems to be a little confused about what exactly a consent agenda is. For the sake of clarity, let me offer this definition,

A consent agenda is a board meeting practice that groups routine business and reports into one agenda item. The consent agenda can be approved in one action, rather than filing motions on each item separately. Using a consent agenda can save boards anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour. A consent agenda moves routine items along quickly so that the board has time for discussing more important issues.

The keyword in that definition is “routine”. Non-controversial items that require no conversation. The following are typical “consent agenda items,

  • The meeting minutes
  • The financials
  • CEO report
  • Program or committee reports
  • Staff appointments
  • Volunteer appointments
  • Committee appointments
  • Correspondence that requires no action
  • Perfunctory items-formal approval of items that had much past discussion

Notice what’s not on that list? Multi-million dollar contracts. The hiring of contractors whose philosophies don’t align with the districts. New board policies. Things that require questions.

About 5 or 6 years ago, the board used to deal individually with every contract. It was cumbersome and wasted time, In an effort to speed things up, they started putting every contract under $50k on the consent agenda. During the last year of Director Joseph’s tenure, that number was lowered to $25K, because too many contracts were being snuck through.  Despite these efforts, the consent agenda has become kind of a catch-all for things that people want to avoid questions about.

Luckily MNPS has some board members that aren’t content to let these items just sail through sans clarity. Emily Masters, Abigail Tylor, Fran Bush, and Frida Player-Peters have been regularly pulling things off to question. This week was no exception.

Tylor pulled off several items that had to do with community partners and their role with the upcoming summer school session. Initially, I believe that MNPS was planning a session that more closely resembled a summer camp. Legislation passed during the special session changed that and required, what is in essence, full-time school in the summer months. One of the state’s requirements is that summer school is supposed to be staffed by certified instructors. An admittedly difficult proposal.

MNPS HR maintains that after meeting with a “teacher focus” group, teachers expressed a desire to not work a full 8 hour day and instead only work 6 hours. I question that argument because I’ve yet to meet the person who makes effort to get in their car and drive to work and then wants to make less money by leaving 2 hours early. There is virtually no benefit to that option.

What I think the teacher’s actually expressed was a desire to pair with another teacher, with one working one week, and the other the next. Thus preserving some needed vacation time. This is an option not provided to MNPS teachers, despite staffing being described in this manner by the State Commissioner of Education to the General Assembly.

Since MNPS is utilizing the former model, the community partners are needed in order to flesh out the rest of the day. An understandable need, but one that should be clarified to parents. I’ve heard many express that they were under the impression that their children would be served by certified staff for the whole day, and that this information was very welcome.

In talking with teachers, parents, and principals, I would say it’s pretty clear that there needs to be more conversation around the pending summer school. While recognizably a huge endeavor, implementation has not exactly been seamless, with many past mistakes repeated once again. It continually baffles me that in an arena that should always be about learning, and therefore, all about continuous improvement, the same mistakes continually get made around education policy.

The expectation is that students must learn but administrators are exempt.

RESIDENCY BLUES

Next up, board member, Emily Masters pulled off some proposed contracts with teacher residency programs. Specifically with Relay Graduate School of Education. Master’s had done her research and realized that Relay has close ties with the privatization of public education movement. Relay was founded in 2011 by three charter schools – KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools. Since its inception, it has enjoyed favored status with reformers. In asking questions it quickly became apparent that the board member had looked closer at the organization than had the HR department.

After bragging about the quality of the proposed recruits that Relay would deliver, HR Director Chris Barnes was asked to provide the average Praxis score of the group’s graduates. He was unable to do so. That’s like proposing that the Titans draft a running back but not being able to provide their 40-yard dash time. It’s kinda important and not knowing that answer is indicative of the preparation done before presenting the contract. It shouldn’t be all right.

It gets better though. When asked about retention rates, the claim was put forth that on average 86% of Relay Graduates stay in the district for 5 years. Well, first of all, Relay’s first graduation class nationwide was in 2013, a mere 8 years ago. The 86% is also not supported by the Tennessee Educator Preparation report card.

While MNPS has not utilized Relay in the past, the city’s charter schools have and therefore data is available. Per that report, Relay Nashville retains 80.5% of its first-year graduates. Of that 80.5%, they retain 84.7% after the second year. Of that 84.7%, they retain 66% of the cohort. What math are we using in order to get 86% out of these numbers? It’s worth noting that the second-year and third-year numbers are below the state average.

In fairness, I looked at the Memphis numbers to see if they are any better. In year one they retain 44%. Of that 44%, 92% stick around after year 2 and then 82%. Again not, 86%.

Let’s do the math. We’ll use Nashville numbers. Start out with 100 teachers. After year one, you have 81 – we’ll round up. After year two, you have 69. After year three, you have 46. Less than 50% of what you invested in. Feel like a good investment?

Barnes touted diversity and numbers as a selling point. For Nashville, the percentage of racially diverse completers was 35.6%. The percentage of high-demand endorsements was 37.6%. Better than the state average, but not exactly compelling evidence.

Once again, MNPS is giving money to a marginal company that will take that revenue and invests it in lobbying for legislation that makes MNPS mission decidedly more difficult.

Master’s, in questioning this contract, raised questions about which kids would be served by Relay graduates and if we were truly serving their best interests. A question answered by Ken Zeichner. Zeichner is one of America’s leading academics studying teacher education. In a paper on alternative teacher preparation programs he noted that Match Teacher Residency and Relay “contribute to the inequitable distribution of professionally prepared teachers and to the stratification of schools according to the social class and racial composition of the student body.” Zeichner clarified with the following when talking about Relay and Match Teacher Residency,

“These two programs prepare teachers to use highly controlling pedagogical and classroom management techniques that are primarily used in schools serving students of color whose communities are severely impacted by poverty. Meanwhile, students in more economically advantaged areas have greater access to professionally trained teachers, less punitive and controlling management practices and broader and richer curricula and teaching practices. The teaching and management practices learned by the teachers in these two independent programs are based on a restricted definition of teaching and learning and would not be acceptable in more economically advantaged communities.”

Sounds like a perfect match for MNPS. That’s sarcasm if you weren’t paying attention.

My favorite quote of the evening came shortly thereafter from board chair Christiane Buggs, who apparently has a friend enrolled in the program,

“I really didn’t do that kind of research, I just asked her about it. What do you like about it?”

So there you have it. No need to dig any deeper. Her friend likes it, and that’s the bar we are setting. While I certainly am glad that her friend is being provided a path forward, I would argue that we need to do better both by her and Nashville’s future teachers. Investing in groups that seek weaken public education is not a winning hand. No matter how many short-term goals they may help us reach.

WHAT WAS THAT?

Next up was MNPS’s latest installment of “Slap a coat a paint on it and call it new.” Since being promoted to permanent superintendent, Dr. Battle’s team has often advertised big and delivered small. For example, last year it was promised that Central Office would be getting a shakeup. The promise was a complete re-evaluation of district leadership and a change in the leadership team. The result was one community superintendent retired and two others became principals, those underneath them, for the most part, kept their gigs.

By the way, anybody has anyone seen Karen DeSouza-Gallman this year? Seeing as the district paid for half of her Doctorate and is currently paying her at a level that exceeds principals, shouldn’t she check in once in a while? Asking for a friend. Pun intended.

Last month we had the big announcement about Central Office being rebranded as the “Hub’. Other than slapping a new sign on the building, I can’t see much else that has changed.

This week, it’s a PowerPoint presentation on the “new student dashboard”. For those of you who don’t have the time to sit through the PowerPoint, let me sum it up, “MNPS has added a listing of meaningless test scores to the parent portal and is now taking a victory lap.” That’s it. All the other stuff, attendance, grades, discipline…it’s been there all along.

As far as discipline goes, I’d argue that 90% of MNPs students will never have anything listed in that category. I’ve long argued – an argument supported by MNPS’s own data – that 90%of the discipline conversation is centered around 10% of students. The vast majority of kids go to schools and follow the rules, save for minor infractions. What is the discipline category going to start doing, listing talk in class, SSA infractions, and running in the halls citations?

I don’t say “meaningless test scores” as a knock against MAP either. But presenting these scores without any context is meaningless. And for the 9,999,999th time, MAP is intended to drive instruction not justify policy and practice, but that’s what they are being presented for here.

I’d also argue that most of this information is already known by most involved parents. In his presentation, Chngus readily admits that too few parents utilize the parent portal and he hopes this new addition will drive more there. What’s missing, is an actual plan around how district leadership plans to actually drive parents to the portal. And once there, meaningful direction on what parents can do with the information.

Again, over promise and under delivery. And furthermore, where’s the results from the latest MAP test? Those are the ones that might be helpful in planning for the summer and next year. Not the ones from four months ago.

LAST BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST

Now we get to the highlight of the night and the main event. I want to preface this with a question that relates back to my earlier assertion around education and the inability of policymakers to learn. Here it is,

How many times will board members Christiane Buggs, Gini Pupo-Walker, and Rachael Elrod let fellow board member Fran Bush humiliate them before they change tactics? For two years the trio has taken a position of superiority and a supposition that they could “manage her”, while she’s regularly proven them wrong. When will they wake up and realize that they may not like how she presents things, or her personally, but they are going to have to collaborate with her? That means doing your homework.

Back in 2018, questions of impropriety were raised in regard to MNPS’s security division. There was a change in leadership, but apparently, not a change in culture, as questions of impropriety continually emerge. Bush had gotten a hold of these issues and based on her research, deemed that the district wasn’t doing enough for these officers and therefore if warranted a conversation on the board floor. Her colleagues apparently didn’t share her enthusiasm.

On the Friday prior to the meeting, Bush shared the information she had with fellow board members via the board office. She sought direction from Chair Buggs in an effort to make the conversation as productive as possible. Her efforts went for naught.

Instead of meaningful discussion over a serious situation, the board engaged in a public dispute over proper procedure, that produced nothing but a clear picture of their collective lack of knowledge on Robert’s Rules of Order – the governing principles of the board. It also demonstrated an unwillingness of board members to do their homework. Several freely admitted that despite receiving the materials on Friday, they hadn’t read them. An admission they made unapologetically.

It was clear from the get-go that it was Buggs’s intention to prevent the conversation from taking place. As a means for this, she sought to have the discussion tabled. The motion failed and she proceeded to sulk through the rest of the meeting.

Bush is not without her faults, but to her credit, she remained remarkably calm, and repeatedly cited several different board policies when challenged. In every instance supporting her argument. Despite her efforts, the desired conversation never took place.

To her credit, former chair Dr. Gentry clarified that the agenda item should have been in the form of a “report” as opposed to a “discussion”. Discussion meant that the board was unable to ask any questions of the district administrators. Thus limiting the depth of the conversation should it have been allowed to take place.

Some would argue that the board floor is not the place for this type of conversation. The problem is that when the board does not feel that district leadership is not addressing the issue, there is no other way in which to force action to be taken. Back in the glory days of Steve Glover and Mark North’s time on the board, administrators were rarely held accountable until word came down that the state was poised to take over the district. Board members then instantly began running around screaming, “Nobody told me, nobody told me!” The fault for that laid with them.

After 2 hours of circuitous conversation, the discussion was tabled after a promise to discuss the subject at a coming board retreat.

It clear to even the most casual observer that the aforementioned trio does not personally like Ms. Bush. That is their prerogative. But it does not justify the constant engagement in “mean girl” behavior. Leadership does not mean working exclusively with your friends. It means finding a way forward with those that you may find offensive. It goes with the job. One that carries the added burden of being a model for children. Tuesday’s model wasn’t a good one.

THE UNSAID

So we’ve talked about most of what was said at Tuesday’s board meeting, but what was left unsaid was equally important. When it came time for budget chair Frieda Player-Peters to give a committee report she stated that there were no budget committee meetings scheduled and that the board would be presenting the budget to Mayor Cooper on May 26th.

Whoa, Nellie! What budget would they be presenting? The board has approved pieces of the budget, but not the whole thing. So what’s in the upcoming budget presentation and who exactly is writing it? The board does have a retreat between now and their presentation to the mayor, but nothing can be officially approved at that retreat.

This is important stuff because it sets precedent for the future. The actions taken by this board can potentially handcuff future boards. Somebody better start asking real questions about the budget before it becomes too late. Once you concede power, it’s very difficult to claw it back.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

 

 



Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. I look forward to one day witnessing every member of the school board model the conduct that is expected of students and staff.
    I sure hope along with proper procedures, there is discussion of proper school board etiquette at the retreat. Who is ultimately in charge of setting and maintaining that respectful tone should also be included.

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