Re-segregation Plan? 

Business leaders secretly lobby to excuse white children from school rezoning

It’s being sold to the public as a happy return to neighborhood schools. But critics see the proposed school rezoning plan as a ploy to re-segregate the races in Nashville, and business leaders are helping to prove that point.

It’s being sold to the public as a happy return to neighborhood schools. But critics see the proposed school rezoning plan as a ploy to re-segregate the races in Nashville, and business leaders are helping to prove that point.

The “Chamber of Commerce types,” as one source describes them, are lobbying behind the scenes to excuse gentrifying neighborhoods near downtown from following the plan because it would send those children to schools in poorer, predominantly black parts of North Nashville.

They haven’t taken a public stance yet. But sources tell the Scene that during an annual Chamber-sponsored conference in Miami two weeks ago, they pressured school board members to carve out exceptions to the plan for Germantown, Hope Gardens and Salemtown as well as for downtown itself.

They argued that students living near downtown—many of them the children of young white professionals or “urban pioneers,” as they like to call themselves—shouldn’t be forced to attend the mostly black Pearl-Cohn cluster of schools, these sources say. Children living around downtown are zoned for the Hillsboro cluster in upscale Green Hills now.

“I am furious,” says one source who confirms to the Scene reports of the lobbying at the Miami meeting, which about 150 elected officials and business leaders attended. This source says he watched in disgust as business leaders lobbied school board members and members of a citizen task force that developed the rezoning plan.

“They circled them and started twisting their arms and browbeating them. I saw it firsthand.”

“This is not about neighborhood schools,” that source says. “This is about making sure white, middle-class Nashvillians don’t have to go to school with poor kids.”

School board member Steve Glover also confirms he was lobbied on the issue in Miami, but contends implausibly that he doesn’t know who buttonholed him.

“I didn’t catch their names,” he says. “They just kind of came up and shared some ideas and I said, ‘There’s nothing for me to talk about right now until I have a final report.’ ”

Among the business leaders doing the lobbying, according to one source, was Tom Turner, executive director of the Nashville Downtown Partnership, a kind of mini-Chamber of Commerce and lackey for downtown developers.

Turner wouldn’t comment for this article, but developers have invested millions of dollars on the promise that a revitalized downtown would attract upper middle-class families to live, and they apparently feel the rezoning plan would tarnish that allure.

One source at the Miami meeting says he was told, “ ‘Middle-income families don’t want their kids to be exposed to poor kids or adopt behavioral qualities or characteristics from poor kids.’ ”

The conference’s attendees took some kind of oath of secrecy about the discussions in Miami, according to one Scene source, explaining the reluctance of many to speak on the record.

After holding a public hearing last week, a task force of city leaders is about to present the rezoning plan to the school board for approval as early as next month. The main change would stop the busing of hundreds of black children from North Nashville to Hillwood and Hillsboro. Instead, they’d go closer to home in the Pearl-Cohn cluster, where some schools now operate with many fewer students than the buildings can accommodate.

The plan’s proponents say it would let the district run more economically because five schools would close, saving almost $5 million a year. But it would create inefficiencies as well. Hillwood High School, for instance, would operate at less than its student capacity because so many black children no longer would go there.

To placate critics, the school board says it will improve Pearl-Cohn schools—buying more computers and giving incentive pay to teachers, for example—and, according to the plan, no child ever would be forced to change schools. For generations to come, presumably, a child of North Nashville could go to Hillsboro or Hillwood if they chose, and Metro would be required to provide transportation.

Still, black leaders doubt that in the future the city will have the financial capability or the political will to keep the school board’s promises. Business lobbying to exempt downtown neighborhoods will add to that mistrust, they say.

School board member Ed Kindall, who is black, says flatly, “If those neighborhoods are exempted because those white kids don’t want to go to school with black kids, then I’m against the entire plan.”

Critics say the board shouldn’t vote on such a controversial issue so close to the August elections. The board is not only under unusual political pressure at this time, but also is without the guidance of a superintendent. The last director, Pedro Garcia, was ousted this year at least in part because he opposed the rezoning plan and saw it as a re-segregation of schools.

The system also has failed for four straight years to meet student achievement standards under the No Child Left Behind law. In the law’s mounting scale of sanctions, the state Education Department now is exercising some control over spending and hiring in the system. Many observers think the school board should focus not on a rezoning plan but on hiring a new director and improving student test scores.

But Glover says, “This board has been wrestling with rezoning for over three years. At some point, we’ve got to do something. This is not a re-segregation plan. It’s giving us neighborhood schools. I don’t care what color you are. You want neighborhood schools.”

At a Metro Council budget hearing Tuesday, at-large council member Jerry Maynard criticized the school board for moving ahead with the rezoning plan, which he said threatens to fracture an alliance of blacks and whites now focused on improving schools.

“It seems to me the school board is taking its eye off the ball,” Maynard said. “It seems that a grenade has been thrown in the middle of this alliance, that this new school zoning plan will break up this alliance and will cause all the good will that we have earned…to go out the window.… I just can’t see us re-segregating schools.”

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