Will Pinkston isn't known for his patience. But for months, the school board member says he has bitten his tongue while privately warning Metro Nashville's director of schools that his fuse is running short.
Pinkston says he would forward concerns from people in the community to Metro Schools' Central Office. And one by one, the queries would disappear into a "black hole" and take months to emerge, if they were resolved at all.
"You're losing me," he would say to Jesse Register, MNPS' superintendent.
Pinkston repeated this warning for about a year and a half, he says. Email records show he sent Register an outline suggesting how the district could streamline the way the Central Office addresses problems and shares solutions. But it never went anywhere. And he kept pestering the district to get back to him on problems that never seemed to get fixed.
For Pinkston, the last straw snapped when he arrived early for a community meeting in April about the district redrawing school zones around the 12South area. The room was littered with turned-over chairs and food from an event earlier in the day that no one in the Central Office thought to clean up. The community meeting was less than an hour away.
"You've lost me," he told Register the next day.
"After the 30th conversation, I just sort of gave up hoping that he would make adjustments. And instead, I'm taking this to the board now," Pinkston tells the Scene.
"I'm beyond frustrated with the Central Office's lack of responsiveness to basic constituent matters. It speaks to culture, and it feeds the negative perception of the school system. When we can't execute on the little things, it makes me question whether we have the capacity to execute on the big things."
Pinkston says his irritation with the Central Office has only grown in the weeks since. So as one of the most blaring political voices on the nine-member school board, he plans to use his bully pulpit to call for making the school district operations more responsive and transparent. Some board members are with him. Others say the system is fine as is.
But it's a gripe that the former political operative is using as a tool to pry open discussion over who should be the district's next superintendent — a potentially messy topic, given rumors Register would like to stick around a little longer after his contract expires next summer.
The district pushes back against allegations the school system is unresponsive. Its customer care center received almost 89,000 calls from January to March, according to the Central Office. Nearly four in five were answered within half a minute, and only slightly more than 8 percent were hang-ups. It's a great success, says Meredith Libbey, Register's special assistant and an MNPS spokeswoman.
"Most calls are for information purposes — Where's my bus stop? When do report cards come out?" Libbey tells the Scene via email, adding that the office tracks cases until they are closed. "Some are referred to other departments or to district leaders for resolution."
Pinkston says his problem isn't with "garden variety" complaints and inquiries, which the district handles well. But getting the district to resolve complex matters like zoning, health insurance issues or unintended consequences of school construction work for neighbors is "where there's frequently a breakdown in the system."
Board members are generally split on whether the district is responsive enough.
Members Cheryl Mayes — the school board chairwoman who represents the Cane Ridge cluster — and vice chair Anna Shepherd from the McGavock cluster say the district is doing the best it can, given the district's size and a vacant board staff position.
"We have limited resources on Bransford Avenue, and I don't expect for them to drop everything they're doing to take care of my constituents. That's really my job," Shepherd says. "You can't always solve their issues and that's just a matter of fact. ... But you can listen, and that's what I do."
In contrast, Jill Speering, the retired teacher who represents the Madison area, says she has seen a hit-or-miss response after forwarding issues to the district. While most academic concerns are handled quickly, problems in other areas are left unresolved for weeks, aren't addressed unless she chases them down, or are fixed but no one tells her.
"We all worked very, very hard to win these positions," says Speering, who represents one of nine equal school board districts akin to legislative House districts in population. "We were willing to listen and took those concerns seriously. What voters will often say is once you're elected, they never hear from you. That's exactly what we didn't want to happen — and that's why this is of vital importance, especially to new board members."
According to Michael Hayes, who represents the Hillsboro cluster, getting concerns addressed is a challenge, because problems forwarded to the district often must travel up the entire chain before there's a resolution. Hayes says he is currently seeing 30 to 40 emails a day, largely from parents frustrated with changing school zones.
"If you look at what all of our consultants have recommended, it's more decentralized management," Hayes says, pointing to studies from Tribal Group and the Annenberg Institute that cautioned against a top-down culture governing MNPS. (See "Lesson Learned?," Sept. 5, 2013.)
Pinkston, a communications specialist who works largely with education groups outside of Tennessee, says the complaints stem from that culture problem.
"There is a tendency at Bransford to be very inward-facing and not public-facing," he says. "By that I mean public engagement is often considered an afterthought. People are not brought into decisions as they're being made but rather after they've been made, and we're attempting to get them to agree to it."
Pinkston holds Register's leadership responsible for the slow turnaround on constituent issues. Register is finishing his fifth year at the district and has one more to go, and he hasn't ruled out whether he would ask the board to extend his contract. His office declined to provide comment, saying nothing has changed. (See "Who Will Rule," Jan. 2, 2014.)
"Will's been kind of vocal about trying to take Jesse out, or at least non-renew," Hayes says. Hayes is interested in what new leadership would look like, he says, but among other concerns he fears politics within the district could make MNPS an unattractive place for the kind of quality superintendent the district wants.
Register says he is waiting out the August elections before deciding whether he'll ask to stay as schools director. All four seats up for re-election are contested, which has the potential to turn over nearly half the school board. Sources close to the district say that while Register is interested in extending his contract, the makeup of the board could affect his decision.
"I think Jesse Register was the right person at the right time," Pinkston says. "The school system has clearly turned a corner academically and is pointed in the right direction. However, there needs to be a greater sense of urgency about what's happening in the classroom, and there needs to be a greater sense of responsiveness for things happening outside of the classroom."
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