It was Mayor Phil Bredesen’s idea last year to establish a back-to-basics learning plan for elementary school children in Nashville’s public schools. But when the Metro school board met to consider and take a final vote on the curriculum reform, Bredesen wasn’t there. Instead, he awaited the board’s vote from his courthouse office. Every few minutes, mayoral aides who had been dispatched to watch the board proceedings would step into a hallway and dial up the mayor on their cellular phones to let him know what was going on.
Ultimately, the board signed off on the idea. But Bredesen didn’t go there to celebrate, or to congratulate members for their votes. Going there, after all, would just not have been his style. Bredesen does not make decisions by committee; he makes them as an executive does. Visiting the board members would have placed him on an equal playing field with a political body that many would consider beneath him. And, in this political body’s case, the school board is often considered ineffective and bumbling. Bredesendistant and sometimes aloofis not a guy who enjoys pressing the flesh with weaker intellects.
For the record, Bredesen’s office dismisses that night as less monumental than an earlier meeting during which the mayor did show up to make a presentation to the board about his plan. Not showing up at the later one, his aides say, doesn’t add up to much of anything and doesn’t prove that he remains distant from the school board.
They may be right that skipping a visit to the school board offices didn’t mar the working relationship between the mayor and the school board. But it didn’t do anything to help it either. The relationship is fractious at best and has remained so virtually since Bredesen took office.
Bredesen’s detachment from and periodic chastisement of the nine-member grouphis characterizations of the school board have ranged from “monolithic” in his first term to, most recently, “dysfunctional”is something local government watchers have come to expect. To some, his barbs have even become stale and predictable, unproductive if popular within a community of parents terminally dissatisfied with the way the board conducts itself.
What’s different now in the relationship between the school board and the mayor is that the board has made a conscious decision not to genuflect to its most ardent critic.
The mayor’s latest assault targets the board’s agreement with the plaintiffs in a tiresome federal lawsuit dealing with desegregation. But Bredesen, so far, has not been specific or formal about his concerns about the plan. He has been critical only generally. The board, which is the only Metro agency that is a party to the case, has been trying for several years to reach a settlement. It has. The capital cost of creating new and renovated schools closer to where most students live is $246 million over five years.
To most of the community, what has become known as the “desegregation plan” is simply an abstraction with a huge price tag. That’s because the plan itself doesn’t seem to be very well understood. On the topic of desegregation, what seems to get most of the attention is the constant antagonism between a complaining mayor and the chronically unpopular school board. Ask a next-door neighbor, or even any of a handful of Metro Council members, and they more than likely can’t explain what the school board’s desegregation plan is.
What is it?
It’s been 41 years since Hattie Cotton Elementary School was dynamited, destroying one wing of the building. The explosion occurred as federal courts were ordering the school board to develop a plan to eliminate segregation in the city’s schools.
The events since then are many and complicated. The case has remained alive and well, leaving the Metro school system unable to make real, system-wide changes without asking for the court’s permission. Even just an extremely rudimentary summary of the case’s nuances compiled by the school system stretches for 10, eye-crossing pages.
Nevertheless, it’s not hard to understand what the school board and the plaintiffs who are party to the lawsuit want to accomplish with their $246 million proposal. The proposal includes these elements:
* Both parties want more logistical sense in the school system. Instead of students attending four or five schools during the kindergarten through high school sequence, students under the new plan would only attend three. In school lingo, that’s called a “three-tier configuration.”
* Both parties want schools that are closer to home. Instead of accomplishing integration by busing a student who lives in North Nashville to a school in Green Hills, the student might be able to attend a new magnet school closer to home. If the family wanted, it would also have the option of continuing to send the student to a suburban school.
* The $246 million cost that Nashvillians hear so much about is the cost of specific, capital improvements laid out in the school board’s agreement with the plaintiffs. Listed within the document are how many new schools would be built, where they would be located, and which schools would be improved. The use of portable classrooms would be reduced, if not eliminated.
* The school board, the plaintiffs, and schools director Bill Wise all concede that in addition to the $246 million capital cost, there will be other, yet undetermined costs for operations and programs. For those operational components, the board and the plaintiffs have agreed to solicit private-sector funding.
In short, the plan doesn’t address just the desegregation issue. It’s also a school improvement plan. “The primary focus of the agreement is to meet the facility needs...by building the proper facilities closer to home and building them so children can attend fewer schools in their schools career,” says school board member Vern Denney.
Whether the plan would do all of the things it hopes is still in question and is perhaps the reason the mayor is so critical. But the agreement is the result of a lot of work, and, so far, the mayor’s criticisms have been personal and not specific to the plan itself. And, almost certainly, a number of things would be accomplished if the agreement is funded. Students would attend only three schools, and senseless, cross-town busing would be reduced. Busing overall may be increased simply because there would be more schools. Schools buildings would be improved, and new ones would be built. More sense would be made of zoning, and options for some students would be provided.
In his approach to the school board, Bredesen has, probably unconsciously, taken a page from former President Ronald Reagan’s play book. Reagan used his televised addresses to the nation to pressure a hostile, Democratic Congress into launching his agenda, which included sweeping tax cuts. Similarly, Bredesen has used his State of Metro addresses and periodic, critical quips to leverage public opinion and influence school policy.
Bredesen, for example, formally announced his curriculum reform plan during last year’s State of Metro address. Shortly thereafter, under enormous pressure from the community, the school board embraced the new curriculum idea. Bredesen may very well use the State of Metro platform again this year to launch more school reform.
Bredesen’s critiques of the school boardsuch as accusing the body of debating its desegregation agreement for “about an hour”have probably helped to sway public opinion in his favor. However, at least some of the criticisms are, on their face, unfair. Bredesen didn’t seem to mind that the board spent very little official meeting time debating his core curriculum proposal last year before ultimately approving it. In all fairness, they spent much more time, over a period of several years, deliberating over the settlement agreement.
“It wasn’t like this was a new topic,” says at-large Council member Chris Ferrell. “By the same token, I’ve watched a number of school board meetings, and they make the Council seem efficient.”
The mayor has also criticized the board for not consulting the city’s funding bodythe Metro Councilor the mayor’s office before agreeing to a proposed settlement with the plaintiffs in the desegregation case. It’s an ironic accusation. Bredesen routinely cuts deals and presents them to the Council as virtually non-negotiable projects that need funding. Often, the Council isn’t consulted until late in the game.
While Bredesen’s interest and leadership on education issues is almost universally valued in Nashville, school board members and others say his barbs have become unproductive. So far, board members say they do not plan to submit to the will of the mayor as they have in the past. Instead, they seem intent on taking their case for a property-tax increase directly to Nashvillians. That’s despite criticism that passage of such a tax increase is politically infeasible, especially given last year’s tax hike for schools.
“I feel personally we need to take a major step forward in this community,” says Ferrell, one of a handful of Metro Council members who is convinced the money would be well spent. He points out that the recent capital projects for schools that the Council has funded have all come in on time and within budget. And, he says, he does think it’s reasonable that the mayor and the Council should make some refinements to the plan.
But, Ferrell suggests, it may be possiblejust possiblethat this time the school board is right. “It was an historic moment when the plaintiffs and the school board came to some agreement to get out from under the court order,” he says.
It's overdue, but I'm glad it's in progress. I still don't understand, with the information…
Past time Nashville Metro, Get ya head outta ya ass and do the right thing,…
It's about time he was arrested.
TEBOW! TEBOW! TEBOW! TEBow! TEbow. Tebow....Teb....T....
@Elizzmo: What? You think a swat on the bottom of a misbehaving child is cruel?…