A dysfunctional School Board is considered the biggest impediment to improving Metro Nashville Public Schools, according to the most recent Nashville Banner Power Poll. A “lack of bold, cohesive vision” and “insufficient funding” rank closely together as the second and third barriers to improvement. An “ineffective central office” was listed as a relatively distant fourth.
The theme of School Board dysfunction was a recurring one throughout the survey. For instance, Power Poll members were asked to rate the effectiveness of the School Board, from 1 to 5 (low to high). Only 1% gave the Board a 5, the highest grade possible. 40% gave it the worst grade possible, that being a 1.
Negativity towards the School Board also came in response to this question: “Do you feel the search for a new director has been hampered by the ineffectiveness of our School Board?” 84% said yes, while 16% said no. As is widely known, the director search has been in a bad place for some time now. More on that later.
ABOUT THE SURVEY
This survey of 819 Power Poll members was taken Dec. 9 through Dec. 13. 283 members responded, for a response rate of 35%. The Power Poll is not a scientific measure of the broad electorate. It is, instead, a measure of how influential and powerful Nashvillians view issues facing the city. Responses are anonymous. Power Poll members come from non-profits, politics, government, Music Row, law firms, neighborhood groups, labor unions, and many other avenues of life here. Members share an ability to shape the narrative of the city and influence the discussion. To view the complete list of Power Poll members, click here.
AND NOW, SOME PUBLIC EDUCATION BACKGROUND
After arriving in 2009 as director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, Jesse Register announced in the fall of 2014 that he would be stepping down. His contract ended last June. An effort by the Board to replace him, assisted by an outside search firm, failed. Among other problems, the search firm came to loggerheads with the Board. Some on the Board—and many others in the public—thought that the list of finalists prepared by the search firm was weak. An offer was ultimately made to to the director of schools in Williamson County—and he appeared to accept the job. But at the last minute, he backed out, leaving the Board, and the system, in the lurch.
The director search goes on, under the auspices of Sharon Gentry, the School Board’s chairwoman. Chris Henson, who has served the school district for many years as Chief Financial Officer, has been named Interim Director. A committee of prominent community leaders has been established to assist the search. But for many reasons, finding a good director in the here and now is an unbelievably daunting task.
Reason number one is the fractured nature of the Board. Divisions have raged for years now and reflect sharp ideological differences, many of which have to do with expanding charter schools. Often these bitter disagreements have leaped out into social media in jaw-droppingly acerbic posts, with attacks levied at the state Education Department, journalists, school principals, and more. In PR terms, the optics suck. To any prospective schools director, who would be seeking a supportive Board with a common vision, the fruit basket welcoming him to town is glow-in-the-dark radioactive.
Reason number two as to why it’s going to be difficult to find a new director is the timetable. School Board elections loom. Five members of the Board are up for reelection in August. State law sets timelines around when school directors can be appointed. No Board can enter into a contract with a schools director 45 days prior to a School Board election and lasting until 30 days after the election. Thus, if you were to do the math, a new director will have to be appointed by at least June 20, 2016. That may sound like a long time from now, but given the circumstances, it’s tight. The clock ticks.
Reason number three as to why this is so hard is the complicated nature of what an offer to a new director might have to look like. Here is the stark reality: Ain’t nobody decent taking this job unless the elections produce a different Board, for what we said up in reason number one. And so, an offer made prior to the election might have to take into account that a director will take the job, but then want to quit the job if the School Board elections don’t go in a direction the new director likes. So, a new director is likely to want an exit clause. That exit clause will mean—and I’m just guessing here but I bet I’m close—that the new director will be able to quit and be paid half a year’s salary. Register was paid approximately $250,000 a year. So, if you’re counting, a new director will want to be able to pocket $125,000 and walk away if he or she sees the Board members still throwing eggs.
Such is the situation we find ourselves in.
Power Poll members were asked to weigh in on this issue of the director search. An astonishingly high 76% of the Power Poll members said they were NOT in favor of waiting until after Board elections to recruit a permanent director. 24% said they were in favor of waiting. Obviously, Power Poll members want a new director and are in favor of finding one soon.
Meanwhile, send a holiday card to Sharon Gentry. She could use a boost.
THIS IS WHERE IT GETS WEIRD
So we have discussed how hard it will be for the Board to find a new director. But what we all have to realize is that there is this one, big, motivational element pushing Board members to hire someone. And that is, if they fail to find someone, they look awful. And that means the five who are running for re-election will have opponents taking easy pot-shots at them. Politically, the Board is on the hot seat to find a new director soon.
But here’s the danger: The danger is that the Board just goes out and offers the job to someone mediocre to cover their hides. Politically incentivized to fill the position, they just hire the next available education bureaucrat. Not good.
THE LONG, LONG, LONG SHOT
Power Poll members did convene around a possible solution to this mess. When asked, “Would you be in favor of moving to a School Board whose members are appointed by the mayor or should we continue to elect our School Board?”, 53% said we should move to a system of appointed members. 31% said we should continue electing them, while 16% were undecided. Moving to appointed versus elected would require more than meets the eye. It would necessitate a change in state law. That means a Democrat (Megan Barry) would have to go up to Capitol Hill (Republican) and try to do business. Karl Dean didn’t have too much luck asking the state Legislature for money for his Amp. But changing our School Board from elected to appointed wouldn’t cost the state anything and frankly, supporters for appointed versus elected are a dime a dozen in the Haslam administration. As well, the idea appears to have growing support locally (unlike the Amp) and is being chatted up among various pockets of influence around town. This is not a short-term fix. But longer term, getting politics off the Board has clear backing from Power Poll members.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, A LOOK AT HOW IT’S SHAPING UP IN THOSE AUGUST SCHOOL BOARD RACES
Five current Board members are up for re-election, although not all have indicated they are running. But we asked Power Poll members to rate the five as favorable, unfavorable, or unknown. Gentry topped the charts as the most favorable (35%), followed by, in order, Elissa Kim (32%), Amy Frogge (25%), Will Pinkston (23%), and Jill Speering (14%). In the unfavorable category, Pinkston captured first place at 61%, followed by Frogge (46%), Gentry (36%), Speering (29%), and Kim (26%).
Next Tuesday we will release the rest of the results of our Education Power Poll, which includes questions about district schools, charter schools, magnet schools, whether Nashville’s system in general is on the right or wrong path, whether a child’s school assignment should be based on location or parental choice, and whether we should have more or fewer charter schools.