After years in shadows, school board pushes Pinkston into light

Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 11:44pm
1029 Will Pinkston main.jpg
Will Pinkston (Eric England/SouthComm)

If the devil is in the details, then Will Pinkston is Satan’s right-hand man.

After a decade working behind the curtain of state government, Pinkston is now one of the Metro school board’s newest members, a title that moves the political operative from backstage into the limelight.

It’s a spot he never wanted to be in before. But it’s one he is uniquely qualified for as the school board considers whether to wage a legal war with the Tennessee Department of Education over a controversial charter school while weathering the onslaught of education reforms the state legislature continues to fire out from Capitol Hill.

“I never thought I would run for public office. If I had, I probably would have behaved a lot differently over the years,” Pinkston said, chuckling over a cup of coffee not far from his home office in the 12South neighborhood.

Pinkston was known for pushing the policy envelope in his days working for state government, explained his former boss, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. Pinkston was known as a person of great intelligence who didn’t “suffer fools gladly,” Bredesen said.

In the Democratic governor’s administration, Pinkston served in various capacities, ranging from getting the governor elected and re-elected to establishing the Tennessee lottery and crafting education reform policies that helped the state win half a billion dollars in Race to the Top funds. He was one of the governor’s senior advisers, specializing in the nuances of both political and education policy, Bredesen said.

“It sort of was like he is a well-respected professor at a business school who is suddenly told to go run a McDonald’s for a couple years,” Bredesen said of Pinkston’s election to the school board.

“I don’t mean it as an offensive thing; I mean it as a very healthy thing, to really round out your understanding of the subject, to actually get in the kitchen on some of this stuff and not just be a pontificator from the outside,” he said. 

With support from Bredesen and his other political fans, Pinkston raised more than $60,000 for his election campaign, which would be considered a large sum of money in a typical school board race. But this year’s politically charged elections saw totals of more than $110,000 to a single candidate, as more business groups and pro-charter school players entered the arena.

He enjoyed the backing of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and financial support from government types, including Bredesen, Attorney General Robert Cooper, Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, leading attorneys fighting the state’s voter ID law and the Metro Nashville Education Association. He won his election with more than double the votes of his opponent, taking over the seat for District 7 in southeast Davidson County, which includes the Glencliff cluster of schools and part of the Overton cluster, where he himself attended school.

Pinkston admits to having the reputation of somebody “who likes to tangle,” but said that strategy will have to change on the school board.

“I’ve got to recognize at the end of the day that what’s best for 81,000 kids in the system is not necessarily for me to run out ahead of the rest of the group. It’s for me to find ways to work with people,” he said. “This has been a personal journey for me so far, and it will continue to be.”

Pinkston is one of nine members of the board. But he is one of four newly elected members, including Elissa Kim, a Teach for America executive; Jill Speering, a retired teacher of 35 years; and Amy Frogge, a lawyer who won her race in an upset after she was outspent by her opponent 5-to-1.

“I think him having a broader perspective, a state’s perspective, can be helpful,” said Frogge after last week’s special school board meeting about whether to consider suing the state over $3.4 million the state withheld from Metro Nashville Public Schools after the board rejected orders from the state.

The issue has sapped the school board’s energy for months. The board twice rejected an order from the Tennessee Board of Education to approve a Great Hearts Academies charter school in West Nashville, largely due to the board’s concerns about diversity. In response, state Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the state would withhold a portion of the district’s “administrative” dollars allocated through the state’s Basic Education Funding formula, amounting to a $3.4 million fine.

Pinkston so far has avoided being boxed in as a pro- or anti-charter school board member. He did not receive any money from the pro-charter Great Public Schools political action committee during his campaign, even though he himself sat on the founding board of Nashville Prep charter school and was once director of advocacy for the charter-friendly State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

While he voted to authorize Great Hearts and ultimately fell on the losing side of the final 5-4 vote that sidelined the school, Pinkston contends charter schools are not the magic bullet proponents make them out to be.

Pinkston asserts the district should cut its losses now and approve Great Hearts before it’s too late to repair the political damage, although other members, like Frogge, want to explore the district’s legal options.

“What the state giveth, the state can taketh away, if not in funding, then certainly in statute,” Pinkston warned the members last week, highlighting the political reality that the district and state still have to work together.

The Great Hearts debate is the first and most demanding issue on the board’s plate right now, which is stacked with issues like implementing a new Common Core curriculum, increasing graduation rates and academic performance, and adjusting to new teacher evaluation systems.

Meanwhile, the state legislature is poised to take up other education reforms next year that could rattle the district. Bills that would give the state power to approve charter applications independent of the local school district, or create a pathway for parents and students to leave the public school system — and use those tax dollars to pay for the private school of their choice through vouchers — are on the table.

But before the board can tackle the new issues, it will have to decide whether to move forward with suing the state in an effort to get its money back. The board expects to vote Nov. 13 whether to meet with independent counsel to discuss whether to pursue legal action.

“I do think that we as a board have to focus locally,” said Frogge. “I feel we have a really good board that can work well if we can get past Great Hearts.”

7 Comments on this post:

By: KENW on 10/29/12 at 9:19

What a foolish comment. "I feel we have a really good board that can work well if we can get past Great Hearts." This coming from Amy Frogge, who is leading the charge to get involved in a drawn out legal dispute with the state over Great Hearts. The same person who played a major role in the penalty from the state to begin with. It's as if she's realized her ignorance and is now trying to cover it up with more ignorance. Just accept your mistake and listen to Pinkston.

By: pswindle on 10/29/12 at 10:01

He lost me when he said to approve Great Hearts. Great Hearts should be history. I would really like to know what is behind this push for Great Hearts. They have failed at other locations.

By: Specter47 on 10/29/12 at 10:25

Really, pswindle? "They have failed at other locations." Really? Where? Don't just throw that libelous statement out there without giving details. Though it's true many of your ilk will accept what you say without challenging the statement, there are those of us who won't. In short...prove it.

By: pswindle on 10/29/12 at 12:45

Read about Great Hearts in AZ. Do your research. You can't take the word of what is getting put out there in the Nashville or state levels.

By: Balo on 10/29/12 at 3:34

Mrs. Frogge speaks for her ideals for education and Mr Pinkston speaks for all those support groups (politicians) in the article. You better look at the provisions of the Race to the Top program. One, It promotes a national curriculum over a local controlled curriculum. Instead of hammering Mrs Frogge, you would better serve your time checking out the books on the required reading list for students. Sgt. York is not on the list.

To answer your question, when politicians enter the picture it is always about the money. This has nothing to do with education.

By: Specter47 on 10/30/12 at 10:24

pswindle... the reason I asked YOU to prove it was because I DID research and found Great Hearts Academies to be highly successful schools, with huge 96% graduation rates. Seven out of nine kids go on to college. Where is the negative data? Show it to us! You are a bitter, hateful liberal who hates free enterprise, even at the expense of kids in school. Who cares if Great Hearts makes a profit, if the real bottom line is successful education for the kids? You precious traditional public schools cannot match Great Hearts, and they never will in the current culture and climate of education in Nashville, with the people who lead the school system.

By: radiyojo on 10/31/12 at 2:14

What is the cost of charter schools? There has to be a cost when you take students from on school and create a new school. This would be a good helpful story. Charter schools should have to justify their existence just like public schools. Is it worth the extra cost?