“Took the end of the world to make us kings for a day.”
― The Dog Stars
As parents, my wife and I have made the concept that actions have consequences a core tenet of what we try to pass on to our children. From a very early age, they have understood that they are free to make choices, as long as they realize that those choices come with consequences. Consequences that are not always pleasant.
Where my son struggles, is when he sees others not suffer consequences for their actions. He often asks, why am I being held accountable when others are not, I often fail to find an adequate answer. This lack of alignment creates a dichotomy in him. I’m sure that he is not the only child that struggles on account of selective accountability.
Ironically, it’s education that we see the most significant chasm between those that are held accountable and those who consistently escape culpability. Teachers and students are under constant scrutiny, while policymakers – both elected and appointed – fly under the radar. Seldom facing any consequences for a failed policy.
Students regularly receive prescribed interventions based on their performance on state-mandated assessments, and this year 3rd graders will face retention possibilities as well.
Teachers are evaluated based on the same tests, as well as, repeated in-person observations. Failure to meet desired levels earns all kinds of recriminations, in some cases, even removal from the profession.
None of those accountability features are in place for district administrators, non-profit foundation heads, or elected officials. Sure politicians can potentially be voted out, but name me the last one who lost their gig because they consistently promoted bad policy. Hell, Memphis’s Mark White still has a job and former Knoxville Representative Bill Dunn was rewarded for years of misguided advocacy with a $100k a year job consulting the TNDOE.
As a result, those jobs have become more attractive than those that involve actually working with kids.
It was recently announced that MNPS’s Chief Keri Randolph was leaving the district to become the new Executive Director for Chattanooga 2.0. In other words, she’s going to become the Katie Cour of Chattanooga. Cour is the head of the Nashville Public Advocacy Foundation, a non-profit that works to influence the city’s education policies.
Randolph is making the move despite being the recipient of a $35K a year raise back at the beginning of the year. But why wouldn’t she?
As ED she’ll pull in about the same amount of money, have the same access to policymakers, and exercise the same amount of influence, but won’t have the long hours and the pressure of creating actual results. Think I’m being unfair? Name me one head of a non-profit who lost their job, or even any influence, due to the policies they champion failing to make a meaningful impact. Memories are short, and they just move on to the next thing. Yes, I’m talking about you, Jamie Woodson.
So props to Randolph.
Nowhere is the lack of accountability more visible than with Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. She regularly falls prey to the old adage, “don’t let your alligator mouth overload your hummingbird ass”. Spouting out false promises and half-truths with alarming frequency. Yet there are never any consequences for her actions.
This summer, in its early stages, has provided ample examples. It’s been a mere week since schools let out and already there are multiple instances of her shortcomings.
Let’s start with our old friend TNReady. As required by state law, results are to be included in students’ final grades. Unless of course, they are not available in time . This week several Tennessee school districts apparently have been informed by the Tennessee Department of Education that TNReady statewide testing scores for third, fourth, and fifth grade were incorrect for several schools and had to be rescored – but not in time to be counted toward students’ final grades.
Every year it is another problem, and every year nothing changes. You are familiar with that definition of insanity, right?
Throughout the year, on multiple occasions, whenever the question was brought forth, Mrs. Schwinn always claimed that the results would be back in time this year. That all these issues were in the rearview mirror. But just like those signs at high-risk construction sites, once again, we are resetting the continuous days without an accident clock back to zero. Maybe next year will be different, but if you believe that, I still have that bridge in Arizona that I’m still looking to unload.
Maybe if the Commissioner focused a little more on getting testing right, instead of the planning and promoting of her personal PR campaign, these issues could be alleviated. A PR campaign that is problematic in its own right.
As most of us are aware, gas prices are at a record high. So what better time to plan a bus tour funded by taxpayer dollars?
To highlight these important policies and programs to support students, Commissioner Penny Schwinn, department staff, state and local elected officials, and community partners are visiting 50 of Tennessee’s school districts this summer to connect directly with students, educators, and stakeholders. On June 6th, the bus tour will feature a special statewide celebration on the TISA public school funding formula and the new $1 billion recurring investment in K-12 public education.
It may be policies and programs that are the intended highlights, but who always manages to take center stage?
How many local educators do you suppose are out there scratching their heads, thinking, “I wasn’t sure that we were doing the right thing, but once Commissioner Schwinn showed up with her entourage, snapping photos, and pasting them on social media, I knew we were on the right path.” If you believe any…let’s talk about my bridge.
If the Commissioners is going to burn up tax dollars in her pursuit of self-interest, shouldn’t she at least familiarize herself with state geography? I mean, I know she’s only been here three years, but…
This week Mrs. Schwinn shared a social media post referencing the great feedback and productive ideas from Bradford and Humbolt counties. Hmmm…a quick Google search shows that there is no Humbolt County in Tennessee and that Humboldt is a city in Gibson and Madison counties. Bradford is a town in Gibson County. Is it too much to expect the state commissioner of education to know that?
But then again, aspirations have always trumped details with this Commissioner.
I can’t help but wonder if while she was out on tour, she discussed her boss’s views on arming teachers with local districts. Wonder how they felt about the possibility of arming teachers. When recently asked by ChalkbeatTNbout for his thoughts on arming teachers, Governor Lee had this to say,
I have said before that I would be in favor of a strategy that includes training and vetting and a very strategic and appropriate plan for (arming teachers). There are a lot of details that have to be right for that to be considered. But if lawmakers brought it forth, I would certainly consider it.
For the record, I view the idea of arming teachers as possibly one of the worse ideas ever proposed. But I digress.
The point here is, be it failure to deliver on promises, lack of knowledge about state geography, and wasted taxpayer money, none of it matters and as a result, she clearly doesn’t care.
An accountability system that fails to hold all stakeholders equally accountable, is not an accountability system, but rather a means for enriching some at the expense of others. It is also, yet another way to undermine a system that some are determined to disrupt and eventually replace.
MNPS FINANCE BLUES
The Tennessean today has a column discussing the $22.6 million gap that MNPS’s annual budget is facing. It’s a gap that has me baffled and once again serves to illustrate the need for public education officials to continually create scapegoats as opposed to addressing their own shortcomings.
Per the Tennessean, “The Metro Nashville Public Schools budget is $22.6 million short thanks to a decrease in state funding, leaving school officials and Metro Council to fill the gap.”
Let’s be clear here, I’m certainly no fan of Tennessee’s state government, but the shortfall isn’t because of the state decreasing funding, it’s because of declining enrollment in MNPS. A continuation of a decade-long trend. As such, something that I would argue should have been on MNPS’s Finance Chief Chris Henson’s radar long before now.
Remember back when we were debating the merits of the proposed changes in state school funding? Proponents of the new plan, TISA, were arguing that TISA was better because it was student-based, ignoring the fact that the current system was also student-based.
The way the current BEP works is that districts receive a set amount of money based on the number of students that show up in classrooms. Students are counted regularly and numbers are reported every 20 days to the TNDOE. Payment to districts is calculated based on those numbers. The amount generated is adjusted based on a district’s capacity to pay. Because of its high tax base, MNPS’s numbers are adjusted downward.
In 2020, legislators recognized that due to COVID, enrollment numbers decreased statewide, and so they passed legislation that would hold districts harmless for that year. Still, due to financial capacity calculations, MNPS wouldn’t have received the same funding because, despite the pandemic, sales tax numbers were still up. In order to offset any potential deficit, the district was awarded a minimum payment of $13 million. It’s a reasonable expectation, to assume that $13 million would disappear once hold harmless legislation expired. It did, and it has.
MNPS has been on a downward trend student-wise for a number of years, for various reasons, but the pandemic has acerbated that. A look back to September shows that while attendance between October of 2020 and the first 20-days of the 2021 school year was only 57 fewer students, the difference between October 2019 and 2021 was 4.297 fewer students. That should have been a huge red flag and spurred conversation on the board floor. But we don’t roll like that.
Instead, district leaders chose to act as if between September and March those students would suddenly manage to reappear in schools. They didn’t and they are not going to. Now it is up to the taxpayers of Nashville to make up for the lack of oversight by the MNPS school board and the lack of foresight by MNPS Director of Schools Adrienne Battle and her leadership team.
I’m pretty confident that MNPS will get their money from Metro Council, and there won’t be any real consequences…until next year.
As previously mentioned, the principal pay schedule needs revision. It hasn’t been modified for years and many principals are topped out. Unfortunately, the cost of living in Nashville has not remained as consistent as that pay schedule, and as a result, salaries are not as competitive as needed. Revising that pay schedule is going to require extra funding…in an election year. Will there be stomach to once again go to the well for a school district that repeatedly asks for more money to educate fewer students?
Charter school growth has been viewed as a prime factor in the decrease in the number of students enrolled in MNPS’s traditional schools. That may be an accurate picture, but I wouldn’t expect that growth to slow. Especially when the district and its schools continually fail to make a compelling argument about the value of enrollment in their traditional offerings.
Take Oliver Middle School for example. Over the last decade, an award-winning band program has been successfully developed. They are currently recognized as one of the best in the state, a recognition that helps draw families that would normally consider other options. In the past, additional resources have been devoted in order to facilitate this commitment to excellence, four dedicated instructors would be an example of this allocation. Some expenses came from the school budget, others from boosters.
This year, a decision was made to scale back that commitment. As a result, all four band instructors have sought other positions – in and out of the district – and it’s been communicated that only two of those positions will be replaced. I can’t help but think that these changes will lead to families reconsidering their options, and maybe deciding that their students would be better served outside the district. Add in heightened teacher attrition, and you have a recipe for disaster. One that the district seems to have little interest in addressing.
It may seem like I’m picking on Oliver, but don’t fall into that trap. I just happen to be the most familiar with the challenges facing OMS. They are not an outlier, and their challenges are not unique to them, but rather symptomatic of MNPS as a whole.
Again, you would think that these challenges would spark a discussion on the board floor.
But remember, that’s not how we roll.
I suspect we’ll continue to ignore the problems until they become insurmountable. Then we’ll create several straw men in an effort to distract from our culpability. Because that is how we roll.
You might have thought that it was just bus drivers, aides, substitutes, and teachers who were leaving MNPS. Well, apparently the trend has now extended to leadership circles. As previously mentioned Chief Keri Randolph is leaving for Chattanooga. Long-time accountability guru Paul Changus is retiring, though the word is he’s going to serve in the capacity of a 120-day contracted employee. HR Chief Michele Roberge is returning to Metro legal. Replacements have not been announced, and it’s worth noting that the government relations position previously held by Athletic Director Mark North has yet to be filled.
So for those keeping score at home, at a time when MNPS is under unprecedented attacks by the state, they have no official government liaison in place. At a time when staffing is at an unprecedented level of difficulty, the district has no HR Chief in place. And, with unprecedented amounts of federal monies available, MNPS has an understaffed federal resources department. Remember that part about conversations on the board floor?
One final note of staff attrition. Does anybody else notice that these out-of-town folks don’t seem to stick around very long, or is that just me?
That’s a wrap.
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