Why change in top leadership is needed at Metro Nashville Public Schools | Opinion
Editor’s note: On Sept. 23, The Tennessean ran a guest column titled “Nashville must unite on improving schools” by Mayor David Briley, Vice Mayor Jim Shulman, Nashville School Board Chair Sharon Gentry and MNPS Director Shawn Joseph. This guest column is a response from three school board members who share a different perspective.
The level of dysfunction in Metro Nashville Public Schools has reached crisis levels, and it is well past a mere personality clash among adults; now, there is proof that the dysfunction is affecting children.
We recently learned that the number of Nashville’s priority schools (those in the bottom 5 percent of the state) has more than doubled under Director of Schools Shawn Joseph’s watch.
Nashville now has the largest number of priority schools in Tennessee, and achievement gaps are widening. Proficiency levels in nearly every MNPS high school have dropped, and only about a quarter of MNPS students read proficiently on grade level.
Although concerns remain about the implementation and efficacy of state testing, it’s clear that Nashville has not kept pace with other districts, including Memphis city schools.
These numbers didn’t fall out of the sky; they are a reflection of the culture.
We are paying our director substantially more than any other superintendent in the state; yet employee morale is at an all-time low, and the district suffers a chronic teacher shortage.
Employees complain about vindictive treatment by district leaders, a lack of clear guidance from the district, and unfair pay practices.
Cronyism abounds; certain employees are paid more than others and earn special perks. Employees report that principal meetings and other assemblies are often unprofessional, with comments by the director amounting to election interference, personal attacks on board members, and other unprofessional remarks.
At a time when the district does not have enough bus drivers, causing children to wait hours while drivers double routes, the director insists on using a bus driver as a chauffeur, even though no previous MNPS director has required a personal driver.
Furthermore, the administration is slowly dismantling effective programs, such as our reading partnership, with no plan to replace these desperately needed services.
This spring, the director suddenly cut a nationally renowned reading program, thereby firing 87 teachers (with no plan to repurpose them) as revenge against a board member (Jill Speering) who championed the program, after she called for an audit.
Effective and experienced teachers with advanced degrees are being forced to use canned lessons, and many principals doubt the director’s ability to effectively lead. The director has attempted to impose a ban on communications between staff and board members, seemingly to avoid detection of these problems.
Sexual harassment lawsuits and claims of inappropriate behavior by district employees and leaders continue to arise. Instead of swiftly addressing these allegations and condemning inappropriate behavior, the director has repeatedly tried to sweep these claims under the rug, failing to conduct proper investigations or to place offenders on administrative leave.
In fact, board members were informed that there was no validity to one sexual harassment lawsuit only weeks before MNPS attorneys admitted in court documents that the allegations were true.
The district is now exposed to millions of dollars in potential legal settlements at a time when we need every cent of funding that we are granted. It also appears that the director has broken state law by failing to report teacher misconduct to the state, a protection put in place to guard children.
The number of unauthorized purchases has skyrocketed under Dr. Shawn Joseph’s leadership, increasing over sevenfold during Joseph’s first year, from approximately $300,000 to $2.3 million.
The director has also failed to comply with proper purchasing procedures by not engaging in competitive bidding, by paying vendors without a contract in place, and by spending over $100,000 without required board approval.
When the school board held a governance meeting to discuss these issues and violations of board policy, the director didn’t even bother to show. Meanwhile, the audit requested in spring has now grown into at least two new investigations based on numerous hotline calls to the Metro Auditor, and negative news stories about MNPS have become an almost nightly occurrence.
Enough is enough. We are failing our children. As some of Joseph’s strongest supporters when he first arrived, we now believe that it is time for change.”
Fran Bush, Amy Frogge and Jill Speering are members of the Nashville School Board.