For the better part of this year, if you engaged local politicos, journalists or civilian junkies in a political discussion, you'd be likely to hear the same observation: "The school board is where all the action is."
Maybe it's crass to discuss the supposedly nonpartisan body governing Nashville public schools in terms reserved for politics as sport. But restraint went up in eraser dust in August after the costliest school board election in Metro history. That bitter contest saw local PACs and out-of-state education interests contributing to six-figure fundraising efforts — the kind of money typically seen at the state level. With Republican rule assured in the General Assembly, and the presidential race not a race at all in Tennessee, the Metro school board has been the primary source of political intrigue, for good and ill.
At the center of controversy has been the nearly yearlong (and counting) debate over the impending — then rejected, then ordered, then rejected, then withdrawn — presence of the Phoenix-based charter-school operator Great Hearts Academies. Given one more chance to comply with the state's order to approve the Great Hearts charter application at the board's first meeting with its new members, the nine-member body voted again to reject it.
Next week, at its meeting Tuesday, the board will decide whether to engage the state in legal battle over $3.4 million in funds — the punitive amount that Gov. Bill Haslam's education commissioner Kevin Huffman withheld from the district in response to the board's defiance. As the school board prepares for a tough decision — whether to fight or move on — two newly elected members have emerged as leading voices at the center of the debate.
One is a political novice and public school supporter who defeated a candidate backed by Great Hearts' well-funded allies. The other is a political veteran who served on the board at downtown charter school Nashville Prep. Yet as the decision comes to a head, both are playing somewhat against type.
Amy Frogge, a public school mother and attorney, is anything but an insider. Her lack of political experience stands in stark contrast to new fellow member Will Pinkston, a former Democratic operative and senior adviser to then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. But as the pressure has mounted, it's Frogge who has said she's ready to take the fight with the state to court, while seasoned campaign streetfighter Pinkston is calling for détente and encouraging the board to move forward.
"I'm a terrible politician," says Frogge, speaking to the Scene by phone. She says she hesitates even to discuss the issue, for fear of stirring the pot further.
Nevertheless, Frogge prevailed in a historically politicized school board election. She overcame a 5-to-1 fundraising deficit, driven by Great Hearts allies, to defeat the goliath Margaret Dolan campaign by a 2-to-1 margin. Now, facing the next giant, she's not inclined to back down.
"No one wants to move on more than me," she writes the Scene in an email. "I hoped, and still hope, that we can settle this dispute outside a courtroom, but as long as the state proposes to wrongly withhold money that rightfully belongs in the hands of Metro schools, I have an obligation to do everything in my power to get it back. To ignore it is to abdicate my duty to the city."
It's not Frogge's school-mom status that makes her willingness to fight surprising: For a public school mother, the basis of the groundswell of support that swept her into office, the stakes couldn't be higher. Nor is it shocking that someone with her law background would feel comfortable sparring over the legality of the state's punitive action.
But as the local, state and national education debate grows increasingly politicized, she makes a somewhat unlikely character in the unfolding drama — someone who's been forced to play harder ball than she initially reckoned, and in a league beyond the minors. And she's admittedly uncomfortable with it.
"I am also concerned about how politicized school board issues have become and about the impact of money and political power on our decisions as a local board," Frogge says. "When I decided to run for school board, I had no idea I was stepping into a national, politically driven debate on school reform."
Oddly, it's Pinkston — a former journalist with a history in behind-the-scenes wet work and a pugnacious reputation to match — who is counseling non-confrontation. That's not the strategy some might expect from the most politically experienced member of the board in its most political moment.
"I find it to be troubling how much time has been spent arguing over a single school that doesn't even exist, while we've got a system of 81,000 kids," he tells the Scene, echoing comments he made at the board's most recent meeting.
Then, Pinkston said that while ordinarily he'd like to fight, he didn't believe it was in the system's best interest. He warned the board he'd heard talk of legislation that would give the state more power to circumvent local school boards. (Regardless of the board's action, that seems likely anyway. Yet it is true that Republican legislators, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, have already begun citing the board's defiance as justification for such proposals.)
It's not just the potential repercussions of the board's actions, whether financial or legislative, that Pinkston laments. He says he's sick of the litigation and furor over Great Hearts — and rumors of more to come — because it's keeping the board from what inspired him to run in the first place.
"A lot of people think different things probably about why I wanted to be on the board — like I'm going to run for something else, or I work in education professionally and therefore this helps me somehow," Pinkston says. "The reason I ran is because I represent the school board district where I grew up. And so it's a very special, personal thing to be able to say, I don't just represent my community, but I represent my part of the community."
An Overton High School graduate, Pinkston grew up off Nolensville Pike in what is currently one of the city's most diverse areas. Glencliff High School, the only high school in his district, has a student body divided by more than 40 different dialects. Pinkston notes that while Nashville has 8 percent of the state's public school students, it is home to 29 percent of the state's English Language Learners.
As a result, he says, he'd prefer the board to focus on the district's ELL services or how city schools are progressing with regard to common core standards — as it would have been scheduled to do at its last meeting — rather than chew over the Great Hearts fight for "the umpteenth time."
Frogge too says she'd like to move past the Great Hearts issue "as quickly as we can without neglecting our duty to our students." Yet she says the Great Hearts debate has "highlighted a need for more discussion around college prep in West Nashville," which she represents. Pinkston, who is also a parent, says Frogge's campaign showed she has a knack for inspiring parental involvement, and Frogge cites her own experience as a parent in extolling the effect such involvement can have.
Those issues, however, will have to wait until after the conclusion of the Great Hearts saga, whatever it may be. Whether the political pressure the board now feels will relent is another story. The debate over charter schools and the extent of their role in the Nashville public education system is only beginning. Under this new level of financial involvement and scrutiny, the school board members are now in the same position as any other politician facing a challenge from, or the influence of, special interests.
"Every individual board member now has the challenge of not getting pushed or pulled in any particular direction," Pinkston says. "You have to be independent-minded and make decisions in the best interest of 81,000 kids. And if that means saying no to somebody from time to time, then we need to do that."
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