Since the beginning of the school year, school board meetings in Nashville and its surrounding counties have drawn national attention, with parents engaging in heated discussions over what they do and don’t want to see in schools. With a packed crowd at the Metro Nashville school board meeting and a rally staged by teachers and support staff, Tuesday night was no exception.
Despite the large turnout, the school board meeting remained relatively calm and functional as parents, staff and even a couple of elementary school students approached the board during public comments to address their concerns and raise questions.
Before the meeting began, teachers and support staff stood outside the Metro schools administration building, holding signs and urging cars to honk in solidarity. Their message: Take better care of us. Present and representing teachers was the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (Nashville’s teachers’ union), while support staff was represented by SEIU Local 205.
“We keep hearing from teachers and staff that they're drowning under the weight of lack of staff [and] all the new mandates,” said MNEA president Michelle Sheriff. “They are begging for some help and relief. And so they're asking for the district to throw them a lifeline. … The working conditions at this point are really unsustainable. And the lack of staff — we know it's a systemic issue, but we need something right now to provide some relief.”
“We're asking for more pay, compensation pay [and] … more days on to work,” said Angela Perry, a paraprofessional. (Paraprofessionals serve as support staff for teachers.) “We have to work two [or] three jobs just to make ends meet. You demand more work from us, but you don't want to give us more pay. We love our kids. We pay out of our own pockets. We can't even pay our own rent because we don't have enough pay. The workers, we come in early [and] we leave late — we don't get that compensation pay. … Insurance is high, medication is high, but we have no way of paying those things, if you don't pay us the pay that we actually deserve.”
Both Sheriff and Perry said the district doesn’t do enough to address the concerns that its staff is raising.
“I think they're working toward fixing the problems in the long run,” said Sheriff. “We're asking for some short-term solutions until those issues get fixed in the long run.”
“If they would just listen, and if they would just give us what we deserve, even recognition,” said Perry. “Say, ‘Thank you for a job well done.’ We don't get that. We don't get any, ‘Hey, you know what? Here's a $25 gift card, at least you can buy $25 of groceries just for coming in and just loving on our kids.’ So, no, they don't always listen to us until it's needed for their part.”
MNEA, SEIU Local 205 and Local 9426 — the Nashville branch of the United Steelworkers union that represents school bus drivers — have all been advocating for better working conditions as the year continues to prove difficult. School bus drivers, who were not represented at Tuesday night’s protest, have said they’re overworked and spread thin as shortages have led to increased routes. Some bus drivers did rally outside the MNPS board room in October, however, and the three unions also created a “Reclaim Our Time” petition to demand better conditions. The petition currently has more than 1,100 signatures,
After the pre-meeting rally, many teachers and support staff turned up at the public comments portion of the meeting to express their concerns with the school board.
“There's only so long that you can stand on a sinking ship, begging for help and not getting it, before you just jump off,” said MNPS teacher Claudia Cornelison. “I'm asking for your help, not just for us, but for our students. Because ultimately, I know that they're going to suffer the most out of all of us.”
SEIU Local 205 president Brad Rayson also took to the podium, acknowledging the work that the union has been able to accomplish with MNPS over the years, but asking for more collaboration. “We understand that recruiting new employees right now is challenging for a lot of places, but not impossible,” said Rayson. “What is possible is doing everything we can to respect and honor and keep the employees that we do have here. We're ready to roll up our sleeves and sit around the table and come up with solutions to these issues. And we're ready to do it together with you.”
Tuesday night’s meeting also saw conversations about charter schools. A majority of those who addressed the board, including two elementary school students, voiced their support for several charter schools and asked the district to add fifth grade back to their schools. While MNPS is doing so with district schools, district spokesperson Sean Braisted tells the Scene that applications to amend charter agreements will be on the board’s next meeting agenda.
A point on the board’s agenda also pertained to Nashville Classical Charter School 2, which applied to the MNPS board for approval twice, but was denied both times. A new state-led charter school commission, however, approved the school’s appeal and greenlit the second Bellevue location, with mixed reactions. After that decision was made, the MNPS school board had 30 days to decide whether it would oversee the second charter school location. On Tuesday, the board decided in a 5-4 vote that it would.
Abigail Tylor, who oversees the district that the charter school is slated to occupy, gave a spirited speech in opposition of the school, citing issues with its location and mixed messages from the charter schools.
“Nashville Classical has written a letter claiming that they desire to partner with the district, and that they intend to prove their willingness to be a good partner by belatedly addressing our initial concerns,” said Tylor. “The truth of the matter is, if Nashville Classical had intended to be a good partner with the district, they would have responded by taking our initial concerns seriously when they first brought their application before us.”