After thirty months of observing the director of schools’ performance and intense media scrutiny, sometimes writing in support of the man and other times throwing shade on his administration, my effort to rise above the fray and focus on the children recently fell victim to the noise.
It got personal.
I wrote that tweet and a companion Facebook post after last week’s story by Nashville’s CBS-affiliate investigative journalist Phil Williams blasting Metro Schools’ director Dr. Shawn Joseph for violating the contract process after awarding a one million dollar no-bid contract to a vendor he worked with in Prince George’s County, MD. A few days before the contract story, Williams refreshed a story about Dr. Joseph using a school bus driver to chauffeur him around the city during a time when the district was short on school bus drivers. In addition to the hard-hitting reports, I’d spent the prior weekend reading Facebook comments made by Dr. Joseph supporters who believe he is being unfairly targeted. That Dr. Joseph also happens to Nashville’s first black director of schools adds a layer of difficulty to the heap of madness. Because, yes, it matters.
Here’s my honest and conflicted hot take: Media and a small but loud contingent began scrutinizing the director before he had the chance to unpack boxes from Maryland. Until last year’s budget discussions (February 2018), he had the full support of the board, but board/director relations and public opinion went all the way left when Amy Frogge and Jill Speering abandoned their support and participated in public admonishment of the director’s leadership. Dr. Joseph’s efforts to defend himself, mishandling personnel matters, and toxic engagement with board members piled on a mountain of insult to injury.
Because of how I see the situation, I’ve been chided in private for joining the chorus of white voices who are out to get our “brotha” and publicly accused of caping for him because he’s black. I’ve supported Dr. Joseph because our community desperately needs him to succeed, but my support doesn’t come without accountability. It is truly about the kids.
The State of Black Nashville
Look, since the beginning, I have complained about the searing spotlight on the district’s first black director of schools. But to be brutally honest, my real concern has more to do with what this controversy tells us about being black in Nashville. New Nashville loves to think itself a progressive city when in reality our neighborhoods are largely racially segregated and the gaps in wealth, educational attainment, and high-paying jobs paint an anti-progressive picture. The most recent public discourse around the director of schools unveils our dark secret. We are a racially divided mess. But because Democrats run the show and we have a few black elected officials, there is an appearance of racial harmony and equality. Dr. Joseph’s hiring added to the facade.
Naturally, many felt a sense of racial pride when the board hired the first black director of schools, a walking, breathing model of educational attainment, leadership, and hope. Dr. Joseph’s hiring set a benchmark by which we, Black Nashville, would measure future success. Our children of color, black boys, in particular, could see a real-life connection between school and possibility. So to read Dr. Joseph’s detractors insist it’s about incompetence yet berate anyone who believes his race is a factor, one must evaluate our progress on the spectrum of racial reconciliation.
It was just one month ago, the year’s first school board meeting was standing room only after a robust public campaign within the black community requesting a large showing in support of the embattled director. The group was also pissed about a text sent by board member Speering suggesting teachers and parents show up at the board meeting in masks to protest the director’s job. At that meeting, school board member Christiane Buggs, who is black, was visibly upset as she reminded everyone of this country’s history of mask-wearing domestic terrorists. Immediately, she was criticized for playing the race card! That we are fighting for Dr. Joseph’s blackness — our value in this city — and screaming to be heard against mostly white opposition is tragically reminiscent of 1950’s racial politics.
Job For Sale
Sadly, this is what we will be selling to the next slate of candidates for the director of schools when the time comes. Dr. Joseph will, no doubt, leave Nashville and move on to less divisive pastures. Meanwhile, we will be here, fractured, pretending race is not a thing and without a serious plan or real interest in helping the 10,000 students, 62% black and 24% Hispanic, in Nashville’s twenty-one schools that scored in the bottom five percent in the state. Worse, the school board is too shattered to pivot from the current mood as it is ripe with competing agendas, lack of focus, and internal strife. Zack Barnes shares a sad example of the public battles between members in his weekly Tip Sheet. Who wants that job?
Do The Right Thing… For The Kids
At the end of the month, the school board will vote on whether or not to extend Dr. Joseph’s contract — a full year and a half before its expiration date. At that time, we will find out if the board has enough confidence in Dr. Joseph to successfully lead this district past 2020.
Even as the blackness of the matter is important to the black community and should be to the entire city, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to the problems. As I see it, and painfully so, there is no path to redemption.
School Board: Save our students and spare this city further division. Either support the director or pay out his contract.