I’m already a woman of few words, but the state of Nashville today leaves me speechless. Acting mayor David Briley delivered his first State of Metro address this morning with a focus on unity and “tightening our belts and keeping our taxes low.” This speech comes in the wake of a string of unfortunate events fostering distrust and forcing Nashville residents into political and ideological corners. We’ve lost a mayor and sworn-in another, the school district’s budget process has been just short of a communications nightmare, voters have been embroiled in a divisive campaign on a mass transit referendum that failed spectacularly, and currently, we are in the middle of a “special” mayoral election. Two thousand eighteen has not been kind and Nashville must triage the issues hurting its people the most.
Metro Schools First
In an op-ed in February, two weeks after the mayor’s admission of an affair with her head of security, I shared my concerns about the priorities of the city and education’s low ranking on the list. Soon after that, Metro School’s director Dr. Shawn Joseph initiated the school district’s budget process and fumbled the snap. In a nutshell, it was poorly communicated. Since the first budget communication, the director and two of the most vocal members of the school board have been in battle. Board member Amy Frogge requested an audit into the director’s spending and a week later Jill Speering requested an ethics investigation. Then, in a last-minute move, the director shook up things dramatically by removing a $7 million program from the budget. That program, Reading Recovery, was the product of years of work and advocacy by — ahem — board member Jill Speering.
I won’t get into the ins-and-outs of the political gotcha regarding the removal of Reading Recovery. However, I will say that Dr. Joseph is the only director bold enough to touch it. The program’s effectiveness and cost versus impact have been in question for more than a decade. So whether the director removed the program by spite or by might, in a 7-2 vote, the board approved the budget (Frogge and Speering voted no).
Unfortunately, the budget switcheroo at the 11th hour only made the situation worse. While we are a growing city, it’s still small politically. You can’t piss off certain people without pissing off their friends. So, it came as no surprise that the acting mayor asked tough questions of the director specifically about the reading program during the budget hearing. Two weeks later, the mayor announced he would not honor the district’s full funding request. Now, Dr. Joseph and his staff are forced to find an additional $40 million to cut from the budget. The mayor says the city must “live within our means and think creatively about how we do things.” (more on this in another blog)
In his State of Metro address, the Mayor once again affirmed his belief in education as residing at the core of our city’s mission, and his desire to support our schools. He also expressed his frustration that he could not do more of what’s needed in this extremely challenging budget year. I commend the Mayor for halting the practice of using our cash reserve for recurring expenses, a tough step but one that is critical to the city’s fiscal health.
Unfortunately, the resulting proposed $5 million budget allocation from the city will leave Metro Schools with $17 million dollars in unfunded mandatory expenses, and so represents a $17 million dollar cut from current funding levels.
Meeting our standing obligations will require that we halt any new programs and dramatically reduce central support. In addition, the proposed budget allocation will force us to defer pay increases for teachers and staff, posing a challenge for them and limiting our ability to attract and retain staff.
On the chopping block: employees, salary increases, and new programming.
Back at the board…
Just two days ago, Frogge posted an explanation of her vote against the budget and what reads like her support of the mayor’s $40 million cut from the district’s budget request. In the post, Frogge amplifies the high salaries of Dr. Joseph and his top staffers, money for charters schools (of course), dollars for consultants, and Reading Recovery. A day later, outgoing school board member Mary Pierce posted a video responding to questions about charters schools and contracts. Fun times.
What Say You?
If gauging public opinion by Twitter and Facebook, Dr. Joseph is a wanted man. Can Dr. Joseph survive the ire of two politically connected board members supported by the mayor and a vocal group of unhappy parents?
I’ll end this with a tweet from my friend Zack Barnes.