Too Cruel for Schools 

The 'education' mayor clashes with the school board

The 'education' mayor clashes with the school board

It’s pretty ironic that after just a few short months, the Metro school board is already somewhat disenchanted with the man who has billed himself as Nashville’s ”education“ mayor.

At first, it didn’t seem odd to the school board that Bill Purcell planned to pursue visits to all of the city’s 127 public schools during his first year. But Purcell has been taking note of every long blade of grass and leaky faucet along the way, which has apparently disrupted the school system’s procedures for maintaining school buildings.

Every time Purcell demands a door painted or a sink fixed, a maintenance worker gets pulled from something more important to appease the mayor. In short, the school board is tired of what one member calls Purcell’s ”meddling.“ It’s not as though the members don’t want schools fixed, they say. It’s that they want the most important things fixed first.

The final straw came recently when Purcell intimated publicly that the school system wasn’t maintaining the schools as well as it could. The criticism came shortly before Purcell’s office wrote a memo to schools director Bill Wise that said, among other things, that the mayor would make no effort to raise taxes for schools in the coming year. The combination of news set off school board members, one of whom critized Purcell in a biting e-mail sent to colleagues and others interested in education issues.

”Is it the school system’s management or the mayor’s unwillingness to address the funding shortage that’s at issue here?“ school board member Dave Shearon wrote in the e-mail.

Shearon pointed out something that he feels Purcell probably doesn’t understand. ”The budget for maintenance of Metro schools in 1987-88 was over $2 million. Today it is about $1.5 million. Reported maintenance needs have more than doubled in the last three years. We have 15 fewer maintenance personnel to take care of a million square feet more of schools.“

Shearon wasn’t just a one-man band either. After being informed that the school administration was indeed taking workers off projects to attend to Purcell’s fix-it list, the school board voted unanimously last week to take maintenance matters by priority—no matter who reports them.

Purcell’s office says it never asked the school board to take his complaints before others. ”It’s up to the school system to determine how it handles maintenance,“ Purcell aide Patrick Willard says.

But Shearon points out that Purcell’s criticisms have had a sarcastic ring to them, such as when he told students at Rose Park Elementary School recently that he would report a missing letter in the school’s sign. ”Let’s see how long it takes that letter to come back,“ the mayor said, as if to challenge the school system.

It’s not just the tight maintenance budget and what some school board members say is Purcell’s seeming lack of understanding about the issue. School members say the mayor shouldn’t contribute to the notion that the school system doesn’t manage its resources well.

”I think that criticizing the schools for mismanagement at this point with no more information than he had was not good for the schools,“ Shearon says. ”Quite frankly, I think that was a misstep. That was just playing into the public perception that the schools are mismanaged.“

Shearon says the school board and administration aren’t afraid of legitimate complaints, but he says Purcell’s attack on the system for its maintenance shortcomings aren’t fair as long as there is so little money to fix the problem.

”If you don’t have the money to pay the utility bills, you’re going to hold off painting the house,“ he says. ”We’ve done that year after year.“

In fact, the system, Shearon and others say, has earned the right to more funding.

”Never mind that in every study, by every organization, and based on both regional and national standards, Metro schools are administratively lean and devote unusual percentages of our resources to our core challenge: classroom instruction,“ Shearon wrote in his e-mail. ”Never mind that for two years running Metro schools have exceeded state and national averages for learning in the classroom on the TCAP tests in every subject and every grade tested, fourth to eighth.“

Murray Philip, a school board member who ran for mayor against Purcell, says the new mayor’s school visits are more posturing than anything else.

”Here’s a guy who ran on a pro-education platform. What does that mean other than funding for our schools?“

Philip says Purcell is still acting like a candidate. ”He’s getting his picture taken sitting on the floor with students, and thinks that means something. What it says to me is that he’s disrupting a classroom.“

Liz can be reached at 244-7989, ext. 406, or e-mail her at liz@nashvillescene.com.

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