STOP, HEY, WHAT’S THAT SMELL?

“Human knowledge progresses when people recognize that they may be wrong even on issues that seem certain to them. Wisdom involves openness to those who disagree with us. It is only when our ideas have been subjected to criticism and all objections considered—if necessary seeking these objections out—that we have any right to think of our judgment as better than another’s.”
Nigel Warburton, Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction

 

Every day, at least 5 times a day, I find myself asking the rhetorical question – have we lost our collective minds?

The world continues to divide itself into two camps, those that view current events through the lens of a dystopian landscape and those who are intent on turning the sundial back to 2019, as if none of what has happened, and is currently transpiring, has had any impact. Both sides,  alarmingly secure in the belief that theirs is the only vision supported by the truth and leaving little room for a middle ground.

To those who decry vaccine efforts, and mask-wearing, I pray that the virus doesn’t touch any of your loved ones. Because it’s easy to talk data and numbers until that rare serious infection of a child is your child. Then it’s not so rare, and the loss takes on a heightened level of tragedy.

Those of you are pushing the idea that the unvaccinated be denied treatment, I fully expect that you’ll be foregoing tobacco, alcohol, dope, and bacon in the future. All of which are capable of contributing to a loss of life and clogging up emergency rooms. All of which individuals choose to partake in daily, even though the scientific evidence of their negative impact on individual health is well documented. You do believe in science, right?

These are disturbing times, and it’s only going to get worse, Last night I listened as, for the first time in my life, a president publicly vilified a whole segment of Americans as being responsible for what plagues the nation. Somehow feeling justified for “losing patience with them”. Damn, I lose patience with whole segments of the population on a regular basis, but ultimately have to come back to the fact that these are fellow Americans and as such entitled to their own beliefs, no matter how unfathomable they are to me.

That courtesy needs to be extended to all. You should no more have to explain why you wear a mask than I should have to prove I’m vaccinated. At some point we have to trust that we are each going to do the right thing.

And I’m willing to concede a point made by an artist friend of mine, “Trump was the Fort Sumter of where we are at.” But damn, we are not at a good place and we need to walk down off the ramparts. I’ll say it again, we continue to focus so much on the winning of the war, that we neglect to consider how we are going to win the peace. And we do so, to our own detriment.

In our rush to oversimplify, we are allowing nuances to fall through the cracks. We are using the pandemic to extend our political battles. The common narrative is that it is primarily white, undereducated conservatives, that remain unvaccinated. But the data doesn’t support that.

This is a photo from the CDC website. Just a little over 38% of the solid Trump base is unvaccinated. The rest of the unvaccinated is interesting and sad. Everyone in America has had an opportunity to receive a vaccination if they want one.We are

Perhaps instead of trying to brand people with a title better suited to a bad punk band from the ’90s, we should double down on patience and try to figure out how to address why those other demographic numbers are so low.

Next week promises to be even more emotional, as stories of kids being admitted to ICU, and in some cases dying, begin to creep out. Those data points we keep arguing about represent real human beings and deserve to be treated as such. One child’s death is one too many. and should be unacceptable to all of us.

We are already losing teachers to the virus. This week, the Tennessee Lookout reports,

At least eight Tennessee public school employees – three elementary school teachers, one pre-k assistant, a cafeteria worker, a bus driver and two high school teachers – have died since the school year began after contracting COVID-19. The total is an imperfect tally of a grim statistic that no one government agency or private entity is currently monitoring in a systematic way.

So while I support a pragmatic approach to combating the ongoing pandemic, a grim picture continues to emerge of a Governor and a Commissioner of Education who are incapable of providing what should be considered a primary function of their job – keeping kids safe.

This week the Tennessean ran as close to a hit piece on the Department of Education as they’ll ever get. You got to understand, that in today’s world journalists guard access like Trump guards his tax returns. They loathe to risk losing what little they have, Yet, in this case, writer Meghan Mangrum speaks directly to the primary issue,

Messaging from the Tennessee Department of Education and the Governor’s Office has continued to sow confusion through the first month of the school year, with state officials sometimes backtracking or flip-flopping in the same day and even contradicting each other entirely. 

Mangrum stepping out on the ledge should not go unrecognized. Obviously, we’ve reached a point where silence is not an option.

JC Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee has called the situation a “hot mess”,

“Our local districts need a coherent policy and clarification by the state immediately on this issue. More importantly, the state needs to listen to LEA’s and stakeholders, or we will need a special session to address these growing challenges,”

I’ll take it further, it’s a shit show. One perpetuated by a lack of leadership at the top. Commissioner Schwinn has responded to the ongoing crisis by acknowledging the difficulty and then adding some nonsense,

“This has been a very, very hard start to the school year,” she said during the Aug. 25 superintendent call. “The best analogy I have is that we all come to a new school year with empty backpacks and I think we came this year with backpacks full of bricks.”

No, they didn’t come to school with bricks in their backpacks. They came to schools where districts were instructed by the state to put bricks in their backpacks when they got there.

There is absolutely no justification for the uniform shelving of LEA’s Continuous Learning Plans this summer while the pandemic was still ongoing. Instead of rushing off to award $8 million contracts to friends like TNTP to train teachers in literacy instruction, that energy would have been better spent hooking districts up with consultants in order to strengthen their CLPs.

How effective is any literacy training at a time when we can’t keep kids in schools and we can’t keep teachers in front of students?

Schwinn and company claim that they were caught off guard by the rising number of Delta cases. How? Does she, or nobody she knows, not have the internet? Can they not see what transpired in other countries that were struck by the Delta variant prior to it arriving in this country? The lack of foresight is inexcusable.

A further consequence of the lack of leadership is that once again, we are sniping at each other instead of directing our ire where it belongs. Mangrum quotes Hamilton County School Board member Tucker McClendon who feels that Hamilton County is being negatively affected by state leaders’ attempts to prevent districts like Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools from going remote like they did for the majority of the last school year.

“We shouldn’t be punished for bad actors in the state when we have faithfully shown that we want kids in school,” McClendon said. “We’re overwhelmed, and we’re drowning and the state hasn’t given us a life vest.”

Whoa…slow down their pal. This is like the teacher’s pet complaining when the whole class gets punished, “Why are you picking on me teach. I’ve proven to be willing to suck up to you at every opportunity. Not like those bad kids.”

While I can be quite critical of Dr. Battle and MNPS’s leadership, they have never demonstrated or given any indication of not wanting kids in school, but rather a desire to do it safely. This is just another example of trying to solve individual p[roblems by thrusting blame onto others, And as such shouldn’t be acceptable, But there it is in print, unchecked by Mangrum, sullying what is, for the most part, a commendable article and adding to the narrative that MNPS is a “bad actor”. A narrative that is sure to have negative consequences in the future for Nashville students and their families.

The bottom line is, we can keep sniping and slurring each other and not getting anywhere, or we can remember that we are all part of a bigger picture.

We can focus on how one side is not doing their part or how the other side is stealing their freedoms, or we can look for strategies that bring us together.

We can continue to parse data in pursuit of evidence for our preferred narrative, or we can use it in a manner that illuminates areas of concern.

We can apply a kitchen sink approach to today’s challenges while ignoring future consequences, or we can apply short-term solutions while keeping an eye towards future implications.

We can continue to try and cast individuals in the roles of heroes and villains, Or we can accept the fact that all of us are flawed individuals just trying to cope with events that are often beyond our control,

The choice is ours.

MNPS BLUES

Let me take my leadership handbook down off the shelf for a minute. Thumbing through it for advice. Raging pandemic. System plagued by uncertainty. Under increased scrutiny by state legislators. Progress reports are late again and now discontinued unless children are underperforming. It’s only September and staff is already exhausted by the difficulty of conducting school in the midst of a pandemic. What would be the next most prudent move?

I know. Let’s announce a major leadership shakeup that brings in more people from the outside, increases the size of the central office, and adds inflated salaries. Furthermore, let’s be sure to leave out the “why” associated with any of these moves.

Think about your reaction if Titan’s Coach Mike Vrabel suddenly announced a shake-up on his coaching staff 3 games into a season with more losses than wins. It wouldn’t exactly indicate confidence in the current direction, unless, he offered up a credible narrative for what necessitated the moves.

Let me say it again if you don’t share your own narrative, others will write it for you and it won’t be beneficial. Much like they with SEL, MNPS leadership continues to act in a manner that seems to indicate that sharing the “why” is only a priority in teacher-to-student interactions. That’s a problem.

But for our own sanity, let’s try and decipher what’s going on here.

We’ll start with the most puzzling move – Human resources. I’m not surprised to learn that Chris Barnes is returning to Carolina. Despite being an MNPS Chief, his family has continued to live in Carolina over the last 2 years. A situation that had to change one way or the other, and now it has. While the timing is suspect, he deserves the right to his privacy, so we won’t speculate further here.

Barnes was an interesting cat. Even before arriving in Nashville in an official capacity, he showed up and met me at Tusculum ES, in what felt like a sincere effort to learn more about the district he would be serving. But that was the last I ever heard from him. Something that in reflection, seems indicative of who he was as HR director, often blowing both hot and cold. Sometimes in the same hour.

In some aspects, he elevated the position to previously unattained heights, only to say things that quickly brought it all back to earth and make you wonder, “where the hell did that come from?”

I will say, he always seemed to genuinely care and was known to go above and beyond for teachers, Hopefully, everything is well with his family and I wish him good fortune in future endeavors. Barnes has accepted a position as assistant superintendent of human resources with New Hanover County Schools in North Carolina.

Now, let’s talk about the replacement – Melissa Roberge, who until recently served in the Metro Law Department as the team leader for Metro Schools. A role in which she didn’t often win rave reviews. Now she’s the new Chief of Human Resources while continuing to offer MNPS legal advice and serve as the liaison with metro legal. Two roles that seemingly scream conflict of interest, but when you have a school board member that serves as the Executive Director of an Education policy advocacy group, is a conflict of interest even a thing anymore?

Now to be fair, there have been talks of splitting the role of HR responsibilities between administration and talent management. Perhaps this is the first step in that direction. Looking at Roberge’s resume shows that all of her experience is in the legal field, with none in HR. Luckily, MNPS does have quality leadership in teacher recruitment and retention in place with Amber Tyus and Katy Entertine. So let’s extend the benefit of the doubt momentarily.

Roberge picks up a healthy raise, of over $50k, bringing her annual cabbage to $185K.

Also assuming a Chief role, and garnering her own $185k salary, Chattanooga resident, and former Memphian Maura Sullivan. Sullivan becomes the new Chief Operating Officer.

A glance at Sullivan’s resume shows a competent candidate, but also one who also appears to be a political animal. She spent 5 years as Chattooga’s Chief Operating Officer, serving under Mayor Andy Burke. However, when his tenure ended, so did hers. For the last 6 months, she’s been the city’s recovery and resilience leader. in her own words from her Linked In profile,

Over the course of my career in administrative management, I have gained a wealth of experience. I have extensive experience successfully managing large budgets and directing budget planning initiatives, directing strategic planning initiatives and implementing strategic plans. I have completed Six Sigma and Lean management training to help improve my skills as an organizational leader and I have led the implementation of metric based improvement processes in city government. I enjoy developing skills teams and innovation teams for change and empowering highly productive teams for creating change within organizations. I have years of successful community planning, transportation planning, infrastructure planning, as well as fundraising, economic development and grant pursuits. And, one of my favorite things to do is to identify areas of need in a community and build community partnerships around those areas to create new agents for change to address those needs. I have excellent organizational and management skills as well as a keen ability to quickly grasp the big picture and identify impediments that may lay in the path to success. I am a systems thinker and successfully manage large projects and competing priorities. I have a strong record of success and am proud of the work I have done to build community, energize teams and grow economy.

Ironically, the last person to hold this position was also from Chattanooga – Fred Carr. Former Superintendent Shawn Joseph merged the position with that of Chief of Finance shortly after his arrival. Assigning the role to long-time MNPS stalwart Chris Henson. Henson will now focus on his financial duties, while Sullivan takes responsibility for overseeing the transportation, security and facilities, and maintenance divisions while providing key strategic advice to district leaders on how to improve and streamline operations,

While I find it hard to believe that there was nobody in Nashville capable of filling this role, if she turns out to be half as good as Carr, this may turn out to be a good move. But again, the jury is still out. And inquiring minds also want to know, what about the current executive officer of operations, Ken Stark?

Stark was brought in by Joseph in 2016 and has been no stranger to controversy since arriving. His leadership of the school security division has proven to be a constant thorn in the side of both Joseph and now Battle. Though he’s not mentioned in the district press release, Sullivan could be a means to remove that thorn. Though it’s worth noting Stark was only an executive director, and thus earned a lesser salary than Sullivan who is coming in as a Chief.

There is yet another new chief in town. Garnering a promotion is Keri Randolph, the district’s current executive officer of strategic partnerships, to the role of chief strategy officer. This is a newly created position. Randolph also hails from the Bluff City and since arriving in MNPS in June of 2020 has overseen the creation and implementation of the Navigator program, the Promising Scholars summer program, along with overseeing ESSER spending planning and launching the district’s high-dosage tutoring program. Three programs that despite still being in their infancy, with outcomes still to be determined, apparently warrant a $30k raise. Yep, that’s another $185k in poker chips.

The most interesting of the proposed moves is the demotion of Director of Athletics Roosevelt Sanders. In a move that smacks of past strategy, where instead of being terminated, a candidate is moved to a position with lesser responsibilities and the same pay, in hopes that they’ll transition out of their own volition, Sanders is now responsible for overseeing ES and MS athletics, while the director of government relations Mark North takes over athletic duties.

It’s a strategy that worked with former MNPS administrator Sonya Stewart, If you’ll remember Stewart was a rising star in MNPS, until she found herself in Dr. Battles dog house, where she resided until leaving to take a position with Hamilton County Schools. Where, in my estimation, she is a viable candidate for their open director of schools position.

For Mark North, it means a whole new audience that is unfamiliar with his, “this is how we did it when I was on the school board” stories – a time that wasn’t exactly the apex of Metro Schools governance. Or maybe he’ll share stories of when he was a standout football player at the old Madison High School and then Georgetown University.

That may seem a little harsh, but North’s service in his role as director of government relations has been a little…underwhelming for the district. At a time when the district needed a strong advocate who would fight for added resources and autonomy, he was often missing from the fray.

In of themselves, these moves are probably fine and may turn out beneficial. But it should be noted that Dr. Joseph was criticized for bringing in too many outsiders and increasing central office salaries. A sin that Battle is now repeating, The number of Chiefs has risen from 6 to 8, after Joseph actually trimmed the number back a bit in 2016. Of the 8, only Henson, Chief of Student Support Services Michelle Springer, and Chief of Staff Hank Clay have a lengthy history with MNPS. The other 5 have all spent the majority of their careers outside of Nashville.

The balance between infusing new blood and rewarding faithful service is a delicate one.  But I can’t help but feel, that more and more Battle’s succession of Joseph is taking on a resemblance to that of State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s succession of Kevin Huffman – more of the same but with a kinder and gentler face.

The timing of the recently announced shake-up is further complicated by the pending Summer Session of the Tennessee General Assembly. On the agenda is a closer look at how money designated for teachers is continually ending up in the bank account of central office employees instead of those in the classroom. Legislators have grown weary of dedicating funds for teacher salaries, only to have those monies diverted to paying for central office staff. I’m quite certain, that the discussion of MNPS salaries will be discussed in the session slated to start in two weeks.

Per the district, press release monies required for the increased central office salaries will come from ESSER funds. Which doesn’t seem like a good idea.

That’s it for now, but be sure to be back here Monday, as we’ll take a look at the recently held meeting of the state’s textbook commission, where Ms. Schwinn was politely told that when it comes to the adoption of state-approved math materials and textbooks, she needs to stay in her lane. Over at the Tennessee Lookout, Sam Stockard does a fantastic job of summing up the meeting.

Are you a Tennessee LEA waiting for your ESSER money? Don’t feel like you are alone, Seems like, with most things, Commissioner Schwinn is a little slow on the uptick with that distribution. Word is that she’s looking for y’all to make certain concessions before delivering the goods.

I’d be remiss if I left before sharing a quote by the goo Commissioner from a recent article in the NY Times. The article is behind a paywall, so I won’t bother providing a link, but in it, she’s part of a panel of education leaders discussing how schools recover from the pandemic. As justification for forcing kids into schools, despite an inability to guarantee their safety, Schwinn offers the following,

“Where students were less likely to be in school, I saw more kids hit by cars, who were in ATV accidents or who were gunshot victims — kinds of tragedies that might not have occurred if those kids had been in a school building”

In other words, we have to get kids in school buildings because we can’t depend on parents to keep them safe when they are not in school buildings.

I’ll let you chew on that.

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.

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Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. I would love to see a fact check on Schwinn to see if accidents or child fatalities went up during last school year.

  2. Why are we paying someone to be the Athletic Director of Middle and Elementary Schools when there are no elementary school athletics? Is the Tony Majors baseball league returning? Are we paying someone to stay quiet?

    MNPS creates high paying jobs for the well connected, yet doesn’t pay teachers for teaching during the day and creating videos and online assignments at night for quarantined students. Teachers are even being asked to use their own money for hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies for district required Covid cleaning. All school staff are being required to take additional students or give up their planning time because there are no substitute teachers. Some school administrators are working in the classrooms. Moves like this destroy teacher and school staff morale, which is already very, very low.

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