Nashville is holding a runoff election between Megan Barry and David Fox for its next mayor. The race is being portrayed as a competition between competing visions. I’d argue that it’s actually a competition between competing pasts. What do I mean by that? Let’s get in my hot tub time machine and take a trip back to when David Fox was on the Nashville school board, and I think you’ll get a clearer picture.
Usually, you campaign for a position because you want the job. Well, I guess some people see it differently. Because then-school board member David Fox apparently didn’t think that citizens should be able to elect the people who oversaw their schools. He believed that the mayor should have that job. “I request that as soon as practically and legally possible, Governor Bredesen empower the mayor with authority over Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and support legislative efforts to give Nashville’s mayor the power to appoint all members of the Metro Nashville Board of Education,” Fox said in a speech back in 2008 before the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. So he basically ran an election, and then, when he won, decided there were better people qualified to do the job he was just elected to do.
What a tremendous slap in the face of the people with whom he served on the board, not to mention a lack of faith in the electorate. Apparently, the common folks aren’t capable of determining who should represent them when it comes to educating their children. They need a mayor to determine who is qualified for that position. It’s a proposition that hasn’t worked in Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Newark, and other cities, and it wouldn’t work here. In fact Newark has recently taken back control of the democratic process and reverted back to an elected board after 20 years.
Furthermore, Fox failed to understand the importance of our schools as a cornerstone of our democracy. As Dewey once said, “Schools are the fundamental method of social progress and reform” (Dewey,1897). We have elected school boards to ensure that the progress and reform is consistent with the desires of the community and that all citizens have a voice in how all children are educated. The board is not populated by people who are just a reflection of the mayor’s personal vision but by the vision of the community. As dysfunctional as this current MNPS board is often painted, can you honestly say that every constituent’s voice is not represented at the table? It may be a loud and sometimes unruly table, but all voices are heard and represented.
But under Fox’s plan, that might not be the case. For example, what if a mayor were elected who was anti-charter and he appointed a board that put an end to all charter applications. Now, that would thrill me, but would it adhere to democratic principles? Are the voices of charter school proponents less important then others? Do all voices not deserve to be heard? The current MNPS school board certainly thinks so, as opposing voices are all given representation. A board controlled by the mayor might not see it as such. That’s just one example where the role of an elected school board is vitally important, yet Fox seems to disagree.
Then again, Fox has never been overly concerned with disenfranchising people. In 2009, while chairman of the MNPS school board, Fox was accused of openly advocating for segregation through a proposed rezoning plan for Nashville schools in a lawsuit backed by the NAACP. According to witnesses, Fox made the claim more than once that this plan would put African Americans back in north Nashville where they live. Not only did it do that, but it dropped Hillwood High School’s black enrollment from 49% to 24%. It’s interesting that Fox now supports the creation of even more charter schools – schools that many have accused of fostering even more segregation. Some words from that time still ring true: “Even Ray Charles can see that’s racial and socioeconomic isolation,” said Ed Kindall, a black board member at the time who opposed rezoning. “I went to segregated schools. If we start in this direction, what’s going to stop us from ending up with two school systems?” What, indeed?
Equally disturbing are reports that at a 2008 Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference in Miami, public officials were being heavily lobbied behind the scenes to vote for the rezoning plan in Nashville. As then-Superintendent of Schools Pedro Garcia wrote in a memo, “Business and community leaders met with selected board members while other board members were excluded. The agenda clearly became to have a student assignment plan that pushed for neighborhood schools. In essence, a neighborhood school plan is a disguised re-segregation plan.” Actions like these show a lack of transparency and are hallmarks of mayoral control. Backroom dealing to advance policy – is that the Nashville w–? … Oops! I can’t say that because it’s trademarked, but you know what I mean. If you’d like an even clearer picture, I think the whole lawsuit is worth reading.
Ultimately, Judge Kevin Sharp determined in 2012 that the MNPS rezoning plan was not racially motivated. “While the School Board’s action caused a segregate effect, the Court is unable to conclude that the School Board adopted the plan with a segregate purpose,” Sharp wrote in his conclusion. My favorite quote from Sharp’s ruling is this one: “While the School Board might be chastised for its bitter divisiveness and lack of political will, the Court cannot locate an intent to use the re-zoning plan to discriminate on the basis of race.” I guess Fox forgot those words when he told the firm leading the search for Register’s (the most recent director of schools) replacement that the biggest challenge in finding a new director of schools will be convincing someone he or she can be successful “with a board that’s not been functioning at a very high level for the last 18 months.” He pointed to “varying agendas” of board members that have compromised a unified front. Speaking from whence he knows.
When the ruling came down in 2012 for MNPS, did Fox address the outcome of the zoning changes? Did he show that he understood parents’ concerns? Was he sympathetic to the people affected by these changes? No, he did not, and no, he was not. In his own words, “I wish that taxpayers were able to recoup all the money we had to waste against this ridiculous lawsuit. I’m glad it’s over. It was a distraction. It was an unfortunate waste of money.” A judge ruled that the zoning changes did indeed cause greater segregation, but Fox calls it “an unfortunate waste of money.” Is that the Nashville … Oops! I almost slipped again.
In 2010, while still on the school board, Fox also supported the outsourcing of custodians in MNPS, despite many members of the City Council being against the decision. As the spouse of a teacher during this change, I can testify that the quality of custodial services dropped dramatically after being outsourced. Fox argued that the move was to prevent educational funds from being lost. Well, those custodians employed by MNPS did a lot to make sure that teachers were in an environment that allowed them to focus solely on instruction. Sometimes the bottom line isn’t the whole line. Fox also opposed a cost of living raise for teachers. In fact, he was supportive of merit pay though he and Dr. Register were never able to come up with a model that they could pass.
Since we are on the subject of the bottom line, I think it’s fair to reiterate Fox’s continuing support of charter schools. Especially considering his past profession as a hedge fund manager. You see, hedge fund managers love charter schools. I think it’s a fair supposition that he still has a lot of friends who continue to make a living as hedge fund managers. Probably also a fair assessment to say that given the financial possibilities of charter schools, having a mayor who would actively promote more charter schools would be pretty enticing. I’m just saying, like my daddy always told me… follow the money.
Megan Barry, on the other hand, has been one of the most approachable City Council members during her tenure, and not just for those with open wallets. As a council member, I don’t think she’s ever made a speech asking for the mayor to take over the job of the council. Truth is, Barry has been a voice for those often under-represented. Having spent time early in her career in a classroom, she has insight into what is needed and has vowed to support teachers. She has committed to picking up the torch from Bill Freeman, a candidate for mayor who didn’t make the runoff, in supporting Community Schools. She is an unabashed supporter of universal pre-K. All in all, she presents a more attractive education policy plan. One that is more aligned with the Nashville … (wink wink).
Everything today is so immediate that we often overlook the past. However, the past can provide insight into what we can expect from the future. In talking with someone the other day, they bristled when I mentioned that a Fox administration would be one of chaos. Well, history shows us reasons to believe it would be true, as his time on the school board was one of such acrimony that it makes today’s board look like a model UN. But let’s also look at how he left the school board.
On April 1, 2010, David Fox decided that he was not going to run for re-election for the school board. Unfortunately, that day happened to be the filing deadline, and the only other candidate was fellow Chamber of Commerce-backed KIPP board member Michael Hayes. In other words, Fox hand picked his successor, a moved that demonstrated a continuation of the back room deals that had been a hallmark of his time on the board. Whether it was outsourcing custodians, re-zoning schools, turning over control of the school board to the state, allowing teacher salaries to fall below surrounding counties or his latest fascination, creating more charter schools, David Fox has always been more about serving private interests rather than the electorate.
I don’t know about you, but personally, the past has shown me all I need to know about the future. Despite the fact that I was, and remain, a Bill Freeman supporter, Megan Barry is the only choice in this election for Nashville’s next mayor. Nothing worries me more then the thought of David Fox and his vision of the Nashville style of doing things. There is nothing in his past dealings or current pronouncements that line up with the Nashville that I envision my children inheriting. I hope that upon investigation you will agree and that starting on August 21st you will consider early voting for Megan Barry. We definitely don’t need a fox in the mayors office.