This time last year, the school board’s Murray Philip was in the midst of an ultimately doomed but nonetheless inspired campaign for mayor. Bill Purcell might have prevailed that summer through a smooth mix of careful rhetoric and effective TV ads, but it was Philip who distinguished himself through his passionate stances on everything from the Dell deal to school desegregation. His was the original Straight Talk Express.
Which is why Philip’s sudden decision to drop his reelection campaign for school board comes as such a surprise. In a local political climate where inaction and empty posturing are standard procedure, Philip’s pointed but substantive rhetoric stood out like a mule at an equestrian show. He might have never had a bright political future, but he had some kind of futureeven if it was just to voice conservative opinions and hassle school bureaucrats.
So why did Philip decide not to run again? Ostensibly, the final straw came last week when the board voted to build a new elementary school in his North Nashville district rather than renovate an existing one. To Philip, that vote seemed to cement 1998’s $206 million school desegregation plan, a controversial capital-improvements and school-rezoning plan that he vigorously resisted.
But it was a lot more than that. Talking to the ever-accessible Philip last week, the guy simply seems tired of fightingespecially against his long-time adversary, the local teachers’ union.
”The MNEA [Metro Nashville Education Association] was a major influence in my decision to leave,“ he says. ”We’re going through negotiations right now, and I just sit there. I sit here and listen to these people and I don’t want to bargain with them. I don’t want to talk with them. I hold the MNEA leadership in utter contempt.“
Philip goes on to cite other factors behind his decision, including how the board is set up and his own personal effectiveness as a board member. But Philip, a home renovator who never graduated from college, reserves the bulk of his ire for the teachers’ union.
”This is an organization that has three goals in negotiations that they never lose sight of: No accountability, less work, and more money,“ he says. ”And they don’t care who they screw in doing it.“
Naturally, Harry McMackin, MNEA vice president, isn’t shedding any tears over Philip’s imminent departure.
”I was surprised and pleased,“ he says. ”It appeared to me like he was coming from the Joe McCarthy school of politics. His goal was to make the board meetings so uncomfortable that people would say, ‘I don’t need this.’ It was shocking to me that he himself was a victim of his own style.“
McMackin says that right after he was first elected in 1996, Philip told him that it was his mission to drive away school officials. ”First it was Richard Benjamin [former superintendent of schools], then it was [school board members] June Lambert, then Charlie Gann.“
That all three eventually departed has to be a testament to Philip’s effectiveness, McMackin points out. ”He was quoted in The Tennessean saying he hasn’t made one bit of difference. That’s not really true. He has made a difference, just not a positive difference.“
That may not be entirely fair. For all his rantings against everyone from WNPT station officials to Metro Council members, Philip, who was probably the most informed school board member, was more than a mere bomb thrower. He helped shape school policy. After all, it was Philip who originally pushed for the Core Curriculum program along with the board’s well-received accountability plan that was passed last year. That he ultimately was the lone dissenting vote on both initiatives, however, is indicative of a contrarian style that made it difficult for Philip to build lasting coalitions.
Board member Patricia Crotwell says that Philip will be missed. ”He played a vital role on the board. He asked questions and required answers in such a way that he provided everybody with a better understanding of what we were doing.“
According to Crotwell, Philip wasn’t so much antagonistic as he was aggressive. ”When I came on the board I heard a lot about his belligerent personality,“ she says. ”And I did see him get angry and frustrated, but that was not his defining persona. The vast majority of the time, I found his questions to be pertinent, relevant, and appropriate. That might have made the person who was being asked the questions uncomfortable, but that was not Murray’s fault.“
Philip says that he is comfortable with his decision even if it appears that he made it in the heat of the moment. ”I feel like a million pounds of weight have lifted off my shoulders. There’s no type of benefit to being on the board. It’s time to move on.“
So what now for Mr. Philip? He offers only these cryptic comments: ”I’m thinking about my options. I’m still interested in schools. I’m just going to change my venue.“
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