Candidates in all four of this year's school board races have put their policy positions on display in a series of candidate forums, uncovering big-picture themes on charter schools and the district's direction to revealing concerns over local problems facing select high schools.
The last of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce's candidate forums was no different, inspecting candidates vying for the seat now occupied by Metro Nashville School Board Member Jo Ann Brannon. The election has attracted two newcomers: Lexmark IT consultant Bernie Driscoll and Edward Arnold, who works in IT for the state. Both have children who have graduated from or are currently attending Metro Schools.
Here are some highlights:
A small crowd gathered at J.F. Kennedy Middle School Monday night for another of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce's school board forums, this time featuring District 6 candidates Cheryl Mayes, the incumbent school board chair, and Tyese Hunter.
Here are three takeaways:
1) Experience is a double-edged sword: When asked what distinguished her most from her opponent, Mayes cited her experience on the school board. That's true, but it's not clear whether it will prove to be a strength or a weakness for her re-election campaign.
Throughout Tuesday's forum, Mayes' experience allowed her to give detailed explanations of the school board's system of policy governance, the dynamics of the board's relationship with the Service Employees International Union, and the Academic Performance Framework. Those were countered, however, by simple but impassioned and clearly resonant statements from Hunter about the need for high expectations and better performance from Metro schools. Consider the responses from each to a question about what the district should do about schools that consistently underperform at the 'Target' level," which is the lowest level in the district's APF.
Hunter: I have to admit. This question bothered me. I struggled with the fact that we can create a question that says ‘consistently underperform.’ This tells you that we have a huge problem within our system. We cannot wait until our schools have failed over and over and over again. This, to me, reflects school board failure at a high level. We need to aggressively address underperformance. This is the reason why I’m running for school board because I live in District 6 Antioch for 20 years, and our schools have been underperforming at target level year after year. If this happens, if a child is in first grade and the school consistently underperforms for four years, what happens when they go to middle school, then what happens when they go to high school. It’s too late. We have to set high expectations and we really have to get in and do something.
Mayes: The academic performance framework is not a new tool. It has actually been used by metro schools since the 2010-2011 school year. MNPS already monitors these rankings, especially any of those that fall below achieving not at the target level but any school that falls below achieving. If any school falls below achieving, the district has to first determine why. In order to do that, there are several factors that should be considered, such as: a change in school leadership; high transient rate in that area; or student population; or a high first time EL population.
One of the things we have to consider is that Metro Nashville has one-third of the entire EL population in the state of Tennessee. So we consistently see our EL population go up. Before we make accusations about a school that’s underperforming, we need to understand why that school is not performing to the highest level. And again it goes back to a lot of different factors. If you don’t consider the factors that are involved in the scores, then you are not doing right by the children.
Mayes did make several statements about the need for schools in the Antioch area and the district in general to "step it up" but give her position as the school board chair, she was often in the position of explaining if not defending the board and the situation facing the district's schools. She faces the difficult dynamic of school board elections: the incumbent is often put in the position of representing schools as they are, while the outside challenger represents schools as they could be.
Incumbent Metro School Board Member Anna Shepherd spent much of Thursday’s candidate forum explaining why the district is headed in the right direction, but two women vying for her seat say changes are in order.
Rhonda Dixon and Pam Swoner came to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce's candidate forum in the McGavock cluster pointing out problems locally and throughout the district, like poor ACT scores and frustrated teachers.
All three candidates have worked in the private sector. Shepherd works in an accounting office, Dixon with testing software and Swoner worked as a marketing sales coordinator, although she now is a master gardener who helps educate students about nutrition and gardening.
Attracting fans largely from the charter school community, the gathering at Two Rivers Middle School was less than a third the size of Monday’s forum introducing voters to candidates in the Hillsboro cluster. The event was co-sponsored by the the Metro Nashville Education Association and the Urban League of Middle Tennessee.
After having long driven the agenda of the Metro Nashville School Board, Will Pinkston’s priorities hit turbulence at last night’s board meeting.
Not only did his effort to delay approval of new zoning lines in the Hillsboro cluster fail, but the board picked apart his plan for public engagement and he found out the financial model he was counting on using to evaluate charter school applications would be useless this year.
Pinkston, finishing his second year on the school board, has long pitched policies and driven discussion with much success. But after shifting his attention to questioning Director of Schools Jesse Register’s leadership in April, the board has begun breaking into factions and at times leaving him on the losing end.
After largely voting together in the last two years, often going multiple meetings without hearing more than a peep from several members of the board, all members of the panel were engaged in debate, often centered around one of Pinkston’s policy positions.
If you can spot two Porsches in the parking lot of a school board candidate forum, you might be in the Hillsboro cluster.
More than 150 people people crowded onto the bleachers of J.T. Moore Middle School Monday night for the first of four Nashville Chamber of Commerce forums to learn about candidates vying for seats on the Metro School’s board.
The first — co-hosted by the Urban League of Middle Tennessee and the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association — featured Mary Pierce and Becky Sharpe, both newcomers looking to replace the outgoing Michael Hayes. Here are the takeaways:
1) Where their children go to school will be an issue. Pierce, a stay-at-home mom of four who was once director of development for Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of music, will next year send two children to a private school, one to a charter school and one to a public school. Sharpe, a working mom and business owner with all three of her kids in traditional public schools, has a problem with that.
“I have no problem with her going to private schools and charter schools. But, can I be on the advisory board for CPA (Christ Presbyterian Academy) or Ensworth or MBA (Montgomery Bell Academy) and get up all in their business. No, I don’t have a child there, OK?” Sharpe told reporters. “She’s not committed to high school, I’m there. We’ve had problems we’ve had to deal with. But the schools have become better because I was committed to stay there.”
Pierce says when she’s knocking on doors, for every person who has a problem with her sending her children to private school, “I probably have eight to 10 who say, ‘We totally understand. We did the same thing but we wish we didn’t have to. Thank you for running.’
“It is a big reason why I’m running, so I hit it head-on when I meet people. So it’s not something I’m trying to hide,” she added.
Although Director of Schools Jesse Register sat quietly while members attacked or defended his leadership in an airing of grievances at the school board last night, the superintendent aired his own.
Finding himself the target of Board Member Will Pinkston’s criticism over how he handles constituent issues and informs them on details of recent charter school closures, Register said he’s found it difficult to keep up with 389 emails Pinkston has sent him since November.
“I’ve had many emails from Mr. Pinkston, questions that have been raised about various things. I respond when I can, but when you’re dealing with two or three hundred emails it can become quite cumbersome,” said Register.
Pinkston’s emails represent 59 percent of the 659 total emails Register said he has received from the nine-member board in that time on all subjects, he said, adding it highlights difference in approaches board members have to solving problems.
"If he's spending his time analyzing where emails are coming from, then that's not a great use of anybody's time," Pinkston responded. "For every email Jesse Register claims to have received from me, I've probably received three times that volume complaining about him and the Central Office."
Until April, Pinkston said he and Register were "pretty close and talking multiple times a day," and the volume of emails should be a sign of their alliance at the time. "That of course is done now, so I suspect he'll be seeing fewer emails from me."
Counting up the number of emails from the former state-level political operative is the first clear move Register has made to counter attacks from Pinkston who wants to start a conversation about replacing Register when his contract expires next summer.
School Board Chairwoman Cheryl Mayes is throwing the book at her fellow school board Member Will Pinkston for violating a policy that bans outward criticism of the district’s director.
Calling the language “antiquated,” Pinkston told Pith Monday he’s plans to ask the board to do away with that policy at the board's next committee meeting this week.
“It dates back to 2003 and is clearly an Easter egg left behind by Pedro Garcia,” said Pinkston, referring to the district’s embattled previous superintendent.
Mayes emailed Pinkston Sunday informing him recent public comments about Director of Schools Jesse Register — like many made to the Scene here — were in violation of board policy. She also pointed to critical remarks Pinkston made about Register in emails to constituents.
The policy restricts critical comments of the schools’ director and district staff to only formal evaluations, such as the superintendent’s annual evaluation. The policy, G-9 titled Board Members’ Code of Conduct, includes a section detailing that “Members will not publicly express individual negative judgements about Director of staff performance outside the formal evaluation process. Any such judgements of Director or staff performance will be made only by the full board.”
Addressing the language would be the latest move by the board to consider revising their governing policies. Board members have been suggesting updates and rewrites of board policies for the last two years, largely at the suggestion of school board members elected in 2012, including Pinkston.
Pith obtained emails of the exchange. The first, from Chairwoman Mayes:
The email will serve as notification that you are in direct violation of Board Policy GP-9, Board Member Code of Conduct. Item 2C of this policy specifically states that "Members will not publicly express individual negative judgments about Director or staff performance outside the formal evaluation process. Any such judgments of Director or staff performance will be made only by the full Board"
The actions by you that have led to this violation as follows:
a. Your negative statements regarding the Director of Schools and his staff that have appeared in numerous news articles over the last few weeks
b. Emails sent to constituents and MNPS employees containing negative comments about the Director of Schools and his staff
As Chair of the Board of Education, it is my responsibility to notify board members when policies have been violated and to assist board members in understanding and working within the policies that govern our board.
I have attached copies of Board Policies GP-2 and GP-9. Please review both policies as soon as possible to prevent any further violations. I will be available to discuss this issue in person on Tuesday afternoon should you wish to meet.
Cheryl D. Mayes, Chair
Board of Education, District 6
Metro Nashville Public Schools
Phone: (615) 812-3225
And the response from Pinkston:
Our commitment to the voters, parents, students and taxpayers of Davidson County supersedes the antiquated board policy you're referencing. The voters of my district did not put me on the board to kowtow to an imperial superintendent, and I imagine your voters feel the same way. I've publicly recognized the Central Office when things are going well, and will continue to do so. Likewise, when I believe things aren't going so well, I will continue to make my views known. Let's continue this conversation, as a group, at Tuesday's Governance Committee meeting when we review GP-9.
Last week we told you about political-operative-turned-school-board-member Will Pinkston using his bull horn to muscle the board into a conversation about switching superintendents out of his frustration with Director of Schools Jesse Register.
But what we couldn’t fit into print was the latest beef Pinkston has with the leadership at Metro Nashville Public Schools on access to information about the district’s closing of charter schools.
Two struggling charters have decided to close down in the last month. Boys Preparatory Academy (serving 7-8 grade boys, located in Madison) and Drexel Preparatory Academy (K-6, located in Whites Creek) both gave up their 10-year contracts amid pressure from the Central Office. Both schools will dissolve at the end of the school year.
While charter school closures are rare, both have had well-publicized academic and structural problems in the past. But Pinkston was surprised to find beneath boilerplate district statements by MNPS that district officials had suspected Boys Preparatory Academy of enrollment fraud and violating state law by not meeting special education requirements for their students. He had the same reaction when the district announced Drexel was closing, to find out later the magnitude of their financial problems was more than just trying to make ends meet.
In both cases, details about the schools' plights were not revealed until Pinkston began pressuring the district for more information, he said.
Three things to know about last night's school board meeting at Metro Nashville Public Schools"
1) Charter financial analysis: By the time the school board sits down to decide what new charter schools they’ll approve later this summer, they expect to have a financial model in hand to help them figure out what they can afford. After the idea failed in a tied voted two weeks ago, the board approved a $43,000 contract with MGT of America, Inc. to extrapolate the district’s future charter school capacity. Opponents argue the model will work as tool to justify rejecting new charter schools, although advocates say they need to better understand the district’s capacity for the non-traditional schools.
The discussion rekindled debate on the board’s overarching concerns about charter schools, such as how the privately-managed public schools select students, rates of attrition from charter schools and the schools’ funding. The debate also dredged up arguments that the district should better communicate with charter schools to replicate what is working in the best charter schools’ buildings. School Board Chairwoman Cheryl Mayes promised to host a board meeting focused entirely on charter schools before the nine-member board votes on the latest slate of applicants. The board is expected to vote on the new schools in July, but it could push that conversation back until early August.
Superintendents are frustrated with the state for a delay in reporting student test scores in time for year-end report cards, but the governor said he’d rather the data be accurate than rushed.
The state’s chief of testing and data emailed superintendents Tuesday telling them students’ individual test scores from the third through eighth grade TCAPs would be late this year — and likely in years ahead — due to “post-equating” the data. That process normally happens after the state sends out “quick scores” for teachers to factor in final grades, but the state began the new process on the front end this year, officials said.
Teachers are required by state law to factor the results of state tests into students’ final grades. In light of the delay, the state is waiving that requirement for school districts that ask for an exemption.
“I think the important thing is that we get it right,” the governor told reporters Friday about test scores.
The department worked with outside advisors to determine when the scores would be ready, Haslam said. The decision was “we’d way rather be right then send out a bunch of scores that could impact students’ report cards and then have to recall those report cards because they weren’t as confident about the information as they could be.”
Haslam said it’s a fair question to ask whether the state could have relayed notice about the delay sooner, but added he thinks the state acted as soon as it could. The governor said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is in the process of determining whether the department could have known earlier about the delay.
UPDATE (3:01 p.m.): The Department of Education is releasing the TCAP "quick scores" this afternoon, four days after saying it would take them another 10 days to validate the data. Below is the letter sent today by Assistant Commissioner for Data and Research Erin O'Hara.
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