A Look Back At The Nashville School Board, Same As Today

A controversial and expensive decision affecting thousands of students. A contentious director of schools. A divided and belligerent school board. Racial tensions. Tens of thousands of students in struggling schools in a district ready for state takeover. The year was 2007.

Fast forward eleven years to a near-identical situation, only the players have changed. Playing Director of Schools was Dr. Pedro Garcia surrounded by 4 white and 5 black board members but, unlike today, votes often reflected the racial dynamic.

Another prominent distinction between 2007 and 2018 is social media. Thanks to Facebook’s unlimited characters and space platform, today’s school board members are participating in social-media governance, posting considerations and decisions onto the digital court of public opinion. Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, board members have extended the formality of the board floor to Facebook and Twitter (TCA §8-44-111) posting lengthy official business and participating in lively debate but without “adequate public notice” (TCA §8-44-103), agenda, call to order, and (TCA §8-44-108) quorum.

My brilliant friend, Dr. Zack Barnes breaks down the latest which began as a tiff between board members Christiane Buggs and Jill Speering and ended with the board’s most outspoken member, Amy Frogge jumping in and blaming Black leaders in support of Dr. Joseph for Ms. Speering’s unfortunate health issues.

In the words of Dr. Barnes:

Y’all. What. The. Hell. We have three school board members arguing with each other on Twitter. We have the budget chair of the council arguing with board members. What does “you deserve everything coming your way” even mean? You can’t tell someone you expect professionalism when you aren’t showing it yourself.

And there’s approximately 86,000 students who need that energy.

So what happens when you see history play out in real time? Try like hell to avoid a repeat!

Yesterday, Same As Today

Dr. Garcia became less and less concerned about the feelings of the board members who wanted him gone. Adding to the effect Garcia’s tough words and cavalier attitude on certain board members, was the controversial rezoning plan that sent the community into an uproar. Ultimately, news of the rotted board-director relationship spread outside of Bransford Avenue reaching the power players responsible for his ascent to celebrity status. Interestingly, there would be no public show of support for the director. After all, whether Garcia was right or board members were wrong, the board is the authority.

So, having received word that his contract would not be renewed at a Special Meeting scheduled on a Saturday morning in January 2008 (I’ll never forget that day), the embattled director abruptly resigned and quietly cleaned out his office before the highly anticipated meeting.

What happened next was a crazy mix of hard lessons and unintended consequences.

That particular school board never reached a high-functioning level and found itself stuck with an interim director for one full year (this is not a personal dig against the person, it’s that nothing transformational happened for kids). Worse, the district was in Corrective Action, a serious designation that required state intervention which also meant the selection of the director of schools required the approval of the assistant commissioner of education. Also, under No Child Left Behind, the school board itself was vulnerable to state takeover.

Further, word around the country was that Nashville was an undesirable place to work because of the school board. The search firm had their work cut out for them.

Attea said Nashville’s director search was among the most difficult he has conducted, due to influences on the district from the Mayor’s Office, the Tennessee Department of Education, and others. The district’s status under federal No Child Left Behind laws has also complicated the search. – Dr. Bill Attea, Hazard, Young, & Attea – Nashville Post, December 2, 2008

History, Again

We’re headed for the same fate. The community is losing faith in the director and school board and tweet-fights that turn personal exacerbate feelings of helplessness and distrust. Yesterday’s rezoning plan is today’s Reading Recovery. The straw.

Soon power players will become weary and attempt to influence board members to fire the director or convince the director to resign. Because the district is in “In Need of Improvement” status, the state’s new commissioner of education just might insert herself into the discussion. And should there be a need for a director search, we must be real about the caliber of candidate that might be available to Nashville after the year we’ve had. A quick google search could legitimately scare the hell out of a highly qualified jobseeker.

So the lesson we should learn from both moments in Nashville’s public education history is when the focus and necessary energy is shifted from students to adults with agendas, the house falls apart and the kids get crushed. I know of no other way to express the damage we do to kids who need us while we look the other way.

Hold the director accountable. Hold each other accountable. Be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and, above all else, keep your focus on the babies.



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