From Bill Freeman

It has been a terrible year for students, teachers and school leaders, yet Nashville’s education leaders may face more tribulation.

Concern mounted when Tennessee’s education commissioner Penny Schwinn wrote a letter to MNPS demanding immediate accounting for unspent federal grant funds, simultaneously implying that the school system was not in compliance with federal and state laws. Within hours of MNPS receiving it, Schwinn’s letter was conveniently leaked to The Tennessean, which fueled speculation about the intent of the letter and the leak. Both Lee and Schwinn are posturing for political reasons, which raises questions about their goal.

According to the Tennessean story, Schwinn’s letter sternly “rebuked” MNPS and demanded an immediate accounting for “as much as $110 million in unspent federal grants,” or otherwise face a “delay receiving further aid.” The “further aid” in question is the $123 million allocated to MNPS out of the $1.1 billion the Tennessee Department of Education received from the federal government as part of Congress’ coronavirus relief package.

The letter made it sound as if MNPS is sitting on a pile of money and not taking strides to provide much-needed resources to students. MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted clarified: “To be clear, there is not a pot of unspent money. There is a distinction between drawing down funds through a formal process and allocation and spending funds to support the needs of our students and staff. Metro Schools leverages its funding in compliance with state and federal laws, to maximize the resources and supports available to students. To suggest otherwise, is false.” MNPS board member Christiane Buggs told Tennessee Lookout there has been “no direct conversation around this with Commissioner Schwinn” and said she looked forward to hearing from Schwinn as to the letter’s intent. 

So concerned are education leaders that they sent a letter to Mayor John Cooper asking for him to unite with them and help stave off a state takeover they feel would “harm our city’s students.” 

Lee and Cooper have been at odds on multiple occasions. The mayor is part of a lawsuit by urban school districts arguing that Tennessee’s education funding formula doesn’t commit enough money to Memphis and Nashville. Further, Cooper’s decision to add coronavirus relief funds for MNPS to help the district’s virtual learning program with computers and other resources may not have sat well with the governor, considering his push for students to return to the classroom. 

Gov. Lee called MNPS director Adrienne Battle last week to push for in-classroom learning, but Battle reiterated the district’s plan to return based on a decrease in community spread of COVID-19 — not on “arbitrary timelines requested by the governor.”  Dr. Battle also asked the governor for direct allocations of the COVID-19 vaccine to MNPS staff to ensure a safer return to in-person learning, but the governor made no commitment. On Monday, Battle announced that a phased monthlong return to in-person learning would begin Feb. 4.

If the governor is planning a district takeover, he should remember that does not ensure success. If anything, the opposite is likely, as new leaders have to be brought up to speed, then create and implement plans they hope will work — all while students suffer. According to education-issues blog The Edvocate, “Many states have technical assistance teams that assist struggling districts in getting back on track,” but often “these teams don’t have the capacity or expertise to foster school reform or change initiatives.” And as a result, “many districts get taken over by the very entity that failed to offer them structural and strategic support in the first place.” And threatening to withhold financial support — especially amid an already tough year — just sounds like sour grapes. 

The research indicates that state takeovers by overseers who are unfamiliar with district and student needs do not work. The decisions should remain with Nashville’s education leaders and students’ parents. I hope Gov. Lee will do what is best for our city’s students over pursuing a course that may be guided by politics or sour grapes toward Mayor Cooper or Dr. Battle. Otherwise he could bring even greater detriment to our district’s children. 

Bill Freeman

Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.

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