Well, it’s official: Pedro Garcia’s honeymoon is over. After two years of glowing press coverage and a rubber stamp school board, the Metro schools director has finally found an issue he’s “willing to die on,” but nobody can figure out why. What’s worse, say school board members, is that as a result of Garcia’s incredibly poor battle selection, the entire school system will suffer.
The controversy swirls around Garcia’s handling of “the Gene Hughes issue,” as board vice chairperson Pam Garrett referred to it in a recent e-mail. Hughes, who resigned Tuesday from his newly created, never advertised position in the athletics department, lied on a previous résumé, told co-workers he was a Navy SEAL and a former Pittsburgh Steeler and pretended to be an attorney with a Ph.D. All false. Garcia demoted him before allowing his salary to climb back up to $82,351, which is higher than Metro administrators with far more administrative experience and time in the district.
The first problem with the situation, according to pesky citizens who kept calling school board members, was that Garcia didn’t fire the liar right away. The second problem was that he allowed his salary to creep up again. But it’s the larger significance of these problems that has board members most worried: The school system’s credibility with the community has been damaged by the newly created perception that Garcia protects his own, no matter what the cost.
“The impression in the marketplace is that it depends on who you are if Dr. Garcia’s going to protect you,” says school board member Kathy Nevill. “It’s not just about the board and Dr. Garcia’s relationship; it’s Dr. Garcia’s relationship with this community and with the staff, principals and teachers of this district.”
One principal, who asked not to be named, agrees. “He’s lost a lot of points with some people on this issue.” This person attended a two-hour principals’ meeting Monday during which Garcia attempted to address the situationfor the last five minutes of the meeting. Garcia took no questions.
Board members, however, are raising questions about the way Garcia handled the Gene manipulation, so to speak. “I suspect what has clouded Dr Garcia’s judgment is his anger at [WSMV reporter] Larry Brinton,” says one board member, who requested anonymity. “He’s completely lost his bearing on this issue.” Brinton, it should be noted, has been on this Gene Hughes story like Adam Dread on a microphone.
Nevill agrees with her colleague. “I don’t think this was about Gene Hughes; I think it was about the media not telling Pedro Garcia what to do,” she says. “This fight was between Larry Brinton and Pedro Garcia. I believe that we’ve allowed a fight with the media to damage us considerably. And that’s silly. That’s just silly.”
Also sillyno, on second thought, troublingwas a Monday evening e-mail exchange between Garcia and a couple of school board members. Garcia e-mailed the board to notify them that he had discussed his relations with the board during the afternoon principals’ meeting. He bemoaned the board’s lack of trust in him and complained that “it chooses to believe the TV reporter instead of the director.” (And they said this was a personal squabble.) Board member Chris Norris sent a terse reply to Garcia and the group: “It is my understanding that the board has a duty to the public when we monitor [executive limitations] to exercise our independent judgment based on facts, not opinions about those facts,” she wrote.
The board member who requested anonymity speculates that Garcia just isn’t used to a school system being subject to much public scrutiny and accountability. “He’s going to have to operate in a system where he’s publicly accountable to the board and the larger community,” the member says. “We value his leadership, and he’s just going to have to be comfortable with that model.”
There’s a lot riding on the outcome of this situation for a school system that claims it’s just beginning to turn things around. “What I’m very worried about is that we have allowed something that should have been taken care of a long time ago to derail the progress we’re making,” Nevill says. “We’re almost there at being one of the best urban turnaround stories in the countryin two years.... I don’t want to be another third year urban statistic.” She’s referring to promising school system reforms that crash in their third year.
With such high stakes, all eyes are focused on the board’s next step. At least one member has expressed concern that Hughes will be paid by Metro through the end of October, though he’ll vacate his office immediately. Board member George Thompson, on the other hand, is ready to move forward. “This is our first marital spat,” he says. “We still love each other. We still have confidence in our director’s ability to lead. I think you would hear that from the majority of, if not all, members of the board.”
An Ike and Tina relationship between director and board probably isn’t what most Nashvillians would like to see. (Besides, it’s too hard to figure out who’s Ike and who’s Tina.) But a little constructive tension in the marriage might not be such a bad thing, given a school board that’s trying to figure out a new “big picture” role for itself above mundane school system bureaucracy. Add a leader with a propensity to draw lightning and you’ve got a volatile situation.
Board members like Kathy Nevill just hope that such ego-oriented political gamesmanship doesn’t hurt Metro students. “There’s a lot of trust issues we’re going to have to talk about,” she says. “It’s up to Dr. Garcia if he wants to help us mend these wounds.”
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