When word spread in April that Elissa Kim, an executive of Teach for America, was poised to launch a run for Metro school board, emails started to circulate from the city’s foremost charter enthusiasts. They were all abuzz, having found their contender.
“We have to make sure she wins!” John Eason, a longtime charter champion and board member of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, wrote of Kim, one of three candidates challenging school board chair Gracie Porter in District 5. He called Kim a “remarkable candidate” and perhaps the “top person in the country” in teacher recruitment.
“This is a very rare opportunity to get an education reform star on our school board,” echoed investor Bill DeLoache, a trustee of the Joe C. Davis Foundation who chairs the board of the Tennessee Charter Incubator.
A few weeks later, DeLoache, Eason and Townes Duncan, managing partner of Solidus Company (who heads the board of SouthComm, parent company of The City Paper), filed paperwork for the Great Public Schools political action committee. The pro-charter PAC is assisting a trio of Metro school board candidates at a time when publicly financed, privately led charters are thriving in Davidson County, but still not to the level of the PAC’s liking.
“We would love to see the district actively recruit great charter operators rather than just sitting back to rule on whatever applicants happen to show up,” DeLoache told The City Paper of the PAC’s vision. He said he wishes the board would carry out a true “portfolio approach” to governance, focusing on high-quality schools regardless of provider — charter or district.
Besides Kim, Great Public Schools — its leaders have notable private school ties — has contributed financially to Jarod DeLozier, who is running in District 3, and Margaret Dolan, running in District 9. Dollar amounts won’t be clear until financial disclosures are turned in by July 10. The election for Metro’s five school board races is on Aug. 2, with early voting set to begin July 13.
But the charter crowd has company this election cycle from two other political players also closely eyeing the direction of Metro’s nine-member school board: unions and the chamber, historically two competing forces. (Priorities of the latter often overlap with the charter coalition, while the district’s two biggest unions don’t always agree.)
“There’s lots of competing factions out there,” said Stephen Henry, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers union. MNEA has suffered declining membership in the one year following a state law that stripped its collective bargaining rights, though Henry said some 50 percent of Metro teachers still belong to his union. “We’re looking for those candidates who are focused on what’s best for students, the employees and the public school system. That’s more or less our litmus test.”
Unions, both teacher and support staff, and the chamber seem to be trending in opposition directions in terms of clout, elevating the stakes of the election.
The Service International Employees Union Local 205, on the heels of consecutive years of setbacks — the privatization of custodians being the most painful — would like to restore influence by electing board members willing to fight Director of Schools Jesse Register’s moves regarding support-staff workers. Meanwhile, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is seeking to retain its sway on the board, having ramped up its involvement in public schools in recent years, most notably through the advancement of the Academies of Nashville, the district’s high school redesign, which relies on business partnerships with student coursework. Critics call the Academies “vocational education.”
“There’s some real opportunity to take the school system to a new level with the candidates who are running this summer,” said Michelle Lacewell, the chamber’s director of marketing and public relations. “Our involvement and the continuation of projects and programs like the Academies is probably going to be the extent of our influence. Our agenda is just academic results.”
These factions — charter backers, the unions and the chamber — have cast their visions during what many say is the most pivotal school board election in years, with an outcome that will include significant turnover.
With two sitting board members, Mark North and Kay Simmons, opting against re-election, and two others — Ed Kindall and Sharon Gentry — running against each other, the next school board is at minimum looking at three new members. Porter, the board chair, is in a competitive race against three challengers, increasing the possibility of four newly elected representatives in the nine-member board.
Chief among the new board’s tasks could be replacing Register, who arrived in Nashville in 2009. He’s now worn the director of schools’ cap in Metro for three and a half years, which happens to be the average span of service for superintendents in large urban school districts. His contract expires in 2015, while the newly elected board members will serve four-year terms until 2016.
August’s election comes as educators still wrestle with how to solve the so-called “achievement gap,” which runs deep in a Metro system where 75 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunches. Graduation and dropout rates have improved, but the district’s average ACT score of 18.1 score remains abysmal. Accordingly, Nashville’s middle and upper classes still routinely abandon MNPS for private academies. Vast challenges have attracted 17 candidates across the five seats.
Surveying the crop are people like Doug Collier, president of the SEIU Local 205, whose custodian-outsourcing setback in 2010 was followed this year by Register’s unilateral decision to undo a “memorandum of understanding” with support employees. He labeled Register an “anti-union director” who doesn’t seek advice. The school board hasn’t been there when SEIU needed it.
“If the current board and administration has been successful at anything at all, I think it’s been tearing the Nashville community apart,” Collier said, adding that problem goes beyond just SEIU’s concerns to “everything from charter schools to parent groups, to principals.”
Then there’s the frustration of the charter backers. If they needed a reminder of the importance of this election, it came Tuesday, when they watched the board vote 7-2 to defeat Great Hearts Academies, a charter proposal that came under fire for questions over the Phoenix-based organization’s commitment to diversity.
“I think it’s completely legitimate to consider whatever tradeoffs there may be between academic performance and diversity goals,” said DeLoache, the day after watching the Great Hearts vote go down. “But I think that consideration could be done in a much more thoughtful and constructive manner.”
Board candidates have discussed and debated the state of Metro schools — and the concerns of the district’s constituencies — at a series of forums. But in a low-turnout local election, winners could be determined more by door-knocking and identifying voters than stances. Deciphering the races requires individual breakdowns.
District 5: An incumbent feels heat
Gracie Porter is fighting for her board seat and feeling pressure from multiple directions. At last week’s District 5 candidates’ forum at Rosebank Elementary School — with a crowd of 200 watching — the board chair referred to “propaganda” that suggests she’s anti-charter.
In a follow-up interview with The City Paper, Porter explained it this way: “As I go door to door, I hear from individuals, and this is what they tell me. ‘I hear you are anti-charter schools.’ ”
“I am not against charter schools,” Porter affirmed. “I will say that very vividly as many times as I need to.”
Opening the door to such criticism, perhaps, was her initial vote in May to reject the expansion of KIPP Nashville, a charter group that operates in her district. She and seven other board members voted to approve KIPP’s new North Nashville middle school during last week’s appeals process.
But the anti-charter “propaganda” is coming while Porter has also lost a former ally: SEIU. During Porter’s initial campaign in 2006, SEIU played a pivotal role in her rout of home-school advocate Kay Brooks. This year, the union didn’t endorse any District 5 candidate, including Porter, who didn’t fight Register’s decision to end the “memorandum of understanding” policy. She defended the move as a director’s decision by law, not a board matter.
“There’s some great people in SEIU,” Porter said. “I don’t hold any hard feelings against that organization at all.”
A combination of these factors — and a well-financed opponent, Elissa Kim — has turned District 5 into a battleground. The district, at one time composed exclusively of East Nashville, now includes parts of North Nashville and the downtown core following redistricting. Porter’s most serious challenger appears to be Kim, executive vice president for recruitment and admissions at Teach for America. But candidates John Haubenreich, an attorney, and Erica Lanier, who heads Metro’s Parent Advisory Council, are also viable threats.
Kim, who joined TFA’s staff in 1999 after working as a teacher, said her entry into the race came from a “real passion for ensuring that kids really get a great shot in life.” Talking to voters, Kim said she senses frustration that the “system isn’t all it could be for all kids.”
“There’s a lot of positive response, honestly, a sense that, ‘Wait, we can solve this,’ ” Kim said. Despite her bid to unseat the board chair, Kim said she doesn’t think of her candidacy as “running against anything.”
Asked about her charter support, Kim took a step back. “This whole thing has just become about charters,” she observed. “It’s a little crazy to me. At the end of the day, all that matters is what makes schools great, regardless of their legal designation. I could care less whether it’s a charter, magnet or a traditional. What matters is the outcome.” Still, Kim said she believes the 2012 TCAP test results will reveal some Nashville charters have had “phenomenal success.” In which case, she said, “We need to learn from that.”
Haubenreich, a 29-year-old attorney at Neal & Harwell and former TFA teacher, is also the man behind Nashville Jefferson, a well-followed local education blog where he’s shown a keen eye for sometimes-thorny education policy. He said his candidacy “brings together” both the experience of teaching in an urban environment and his personal investment as the father of a young child.
He rejects the notion that District 5 is a two-person race between Kim and Porter, and when it comes to change on the board, he said he’s looking for greater accountability. “I think the board has to work harder in asking tough questions and driving policy forward,” Haubenreich said. “Right now, I think the board has been content to sort of sign off on whatever Dr. Register wants to do — whether it’s good or not. And frankly, I think a lot of the things he’s done have been just fine.”
Lanier, who routinely attends school board meetings representing the parents’ advisory council, said her involvement in Metro schools began when she moved her oldest daughter from private to public schools. Making her pitch, she recites the word “ART,” which stands for bringing accountability, responsiveness and transparency to the board.
“What’s going to be key with the school board is they’ve got to make sure the feedback they’re giving [Register] is not as the role of a cheerleader,” Lanier said. “We’ve got to have open dialogue and a welcoming culture of all of our stakeholders.”
As for Porter, as current board chair she has defended the trajectory of Metro schools while acknowledging there’s still work to do. “We’ve made a lot of progress since I’ve been on the board,” Porter said, noting the rocky relationship between the state and Metro when she arrived. That conflict has since subsided. She points to the Academies for helping lower the dropout rate and increasing the district’s graduation rate.
“In moving forward, we’ve got to keep our eye on what we’re already doing,” she said, pointing to closing the achievement gap, bracing for depleting Race to the Top funds and ensuring professional development for teachers.
District 1: Two board members compete for one seat
If there’s a swing race in this year’s school board elections — one that will either signal a win for SEIU or the chamber — it’s in North Nashville’s District 1. Following last year’s redistricting process, the race features the unusual quirk of two sitting board members vying for one seat.
Ed Kindall, a 27-year veteran of the board and choice of the SEIU, is squared off against Sharon Gentry, who enjoys chamber backing. MNEA elected to endorse both.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Gentry, a program director at HCA, said of the situation created by new political boundaries. “But it is what it is.”
Looking ahead at potentially four more years on the board, Gentry cited “some serious disparities” that must be addressed in the quality of facilities in District 1, which includes some of Nashville’s’ lowest income neighborhoods, compared to other parts of the county. “The disparity is very prevalent in District 1.”
Gentry, who along with Kindall, served on the board that hired Register, said the superintendent has solidified a sound structure for MNPS, citing his reorganization of the central office. “I think there’s still some things that can be improved upon. Evident from conversations I’ve had, there seems to be a disconnect. I think that’s where we kind of need to try to close the gap.
“We have to do better to build the confidence of everyone in what we’re here to do as a school district,” she said.
Kindall, the board’s longest-serving member, squeaked out his last re-election bid by 102 votes despite lacking the chamber’s support. “Sharon and I both take the posture that we’re not running against each other,” he said. “We’re running for a school board seat.” He said he’s unsure he and Gentry differ in philosophy but believes he has more of a “hands-on approach.”
Kindall also cited his longevity and institutional knowledge. “I think my historical background with the board is really of a lot of value. I’m a strong believer that if you don’t know the history, you have a tendency to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
“We’re at an interesting and very critical point, especially as it relates to issues like the achievement gap,” Kindall said. “We’ve got to really find a way to change the culture for high expectations.”
Kindall, one of the board’s fiercest charter school critics, set the tone for the board’s rejection of Great Hearts Academies last week after citing diversity concerns. “If we’re not careful, we’re moving back to a kind of separate-but-equal philosophy, which I think is not a good approach for this city,” he said of his anti-Great Hearts stance.
Gentry also voted against Great Hearts.
District 9: No clear frontrunner
It wouldn’t be a Metro general election without Eric Crafton, would it?
Crafton, the former Bellevue councilman fresh off unsuccessful runs for council at-large and juvenile court clerk (as well as a failed stab at becoming elections administrator), has his eyes set on the West Nashville-area District 9 seat held by Kay Simmons, who has opted against running for re-election. A crowded field of five is contending for the seat.
Crafton said MNPS spends on average $2,500 more per pupil than other districts across the state. His plan is to divert what amounts to that $160 million “premium” to the district’s failing students for tutoring purposes. “Let’s tutor them in reading and writing and math, things that they’re failing, so they can improve rapidly.” he said.
But Crafton — an often controversial figure for his failed English-only push in 2008 — doesn’t seem to be the frontrunner in this contest. Some say District 9 is a two-person race between Margaret Dolan and Amy Frogge.
Dolan, the vice president of community relations at Ingram Industries who serves on a number of nonprofit Nashville boards, listed closing the achievement gap as her top priority. That challenge will become more difficult, she stressed, as Tennessee implements common core state standards.
“The way we get there is by staying with our rigorous standards, making sure we’ve got a quality teacher in every classroom, and by getting parents engaged,” Dolan said.
A onetime board member of the Tennessee Charter Incubator, Dolan has the support of the pro-chamber crowd, the chamber and teachers union. Dolan called charter schools a “critical” tool for MNPS but they’re not “the be-all, end-all answer.”
Frogge, an attorney and grant writer for the nonprofit Room in the Inn, said a desire to engage community support for Metro’s public schools drew her to the race. Right now, she said, there’s division. “I think there’s a disconnect between some of the MNPS leadership and what is actually going on in the schools,” Frogge said. “I see my role as a facilitator of communication between parents, teachers, the community and school leadership.”
“What struck me during this campaign is that the school reform movement is largely driven by private schools parents, and a lot of our parents in public schools feel very marginalized and unheard,” she said.
Frogge pointed out that she’s the only District 9 candidate who is the parent of children currently enrolled in Metro schools.
Another candidate, Ronnie Osborne, a retired teacher and baseball coach, has objected to a related fact: Crafton and Dolan currently send or have sent their kids to private schools. Crafton’s daughter is set to attend Christ Presbyterian Academy, while Dolan’s adult children started at MNPS before later attending Montgomery Bell Academy and Harpeth Hall in high school.
“I see a big contradiction,” Osborne said of private school parents vying for public school board seats. (The District 9 seat, in fact, has a history of private school connections, with both Simmons and Alan Coverstone, her predecessor)
Crafton said he would have sent his daughter to public schools but she struck out of the Meigs magnet lottery system.
Said Dolan, “I’m passionate about public education, which is why I’ve been spending so much time working on this. I think every child in Nashville deserves to have a great education. You shouldn’t have to move to get it, and you shouldn’t have to go to private schools do get it.”
The fifth candidate is someone with a long history in Metro matters: Bob Bogen, a former councilman and longtime MNEA executive director. Bogen, in fact, defeated Crafton in a council race more than a decade ago,
Bogen, 85, has recently worked as a school crossing guard. “Now retired, I have the option of doing whatever I like to do,” Bogen said. “Of course, public education has been a passion of mine for many years.”
He said while educators focus on test scores there’s a lack of attention on what’s going on inside homes, especially in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. He said he’s worried that children in community housing, for example, begin their schooling lacking the basic knowledge and skills their more affluent peers have.
“That’s one of my considerations, and I’d like to talk to school board members about it, to see if we can convince other departments of government to come in and help these parents,” Bogen said.
District 7: A governor’s aide and a community activist
New political boundaries left a void of board representation for an altered District 7, which stretches from Berry Hill to Percy Priest Lake in southeast Davidson County.
The opening attracted three contenders: Will Pinkston, a former aide to Gov. Phil Bredesen and onetime Tennessean and Wall Street Journal reporter; Al Wilkins, a community activist and retired Teamster truck driver; and Alan Sharp, who says he’s worked in health care and the construction and retail industries.
Pinkston, known as something of a political bulldog during his Bredesen days, raised some eyebrows when he announced his candidacy in the spring. He cited his involvement in education reform with Bredesen, adding, “The biggest opportunities for change actually are at the local level.” He said that working in the second-largest school system in the state — and the local district where he attended Overton High School — is a way to give back.
Pinkston, endorsed by the chamber and MNEA, pointed to supporting teachers through higher-quality professional development as an area the board should address. He called the recent move to bump teachers’ starting salaries a positive step toward improved teacher recruitment and retention.
“The next school board has tremendous opportunities and significant challenges in front of it, and it needs people who are familiar with the issues, who are ready to serve, and who have a stake in the system and community,” Pinkston said.
Wilkins, who has SEIU’s backing, said he decided to enter into this race following volunteer work at the state legislature. “We spend a lot of money, and we’re getting a low report card from the state, and we have failing schools, and a high dropout rate,” Wilkins said. “That says that something is not clicking right.”
Asked about his thoughts on Register, Wilkins criticized the superintendent: “It’s under his leadership that we have these low scores. That’s all I can say about that. You’re only as good as your leader.
“The support staff that I talk to from time to time, they’re sitting down on pins and needles because they don’t know whether they’re going to be moved or even replaced,” he said.
The City Paper was unable to reach Sharp for an interview.
District 3: Three candidates, three outlooks
The race for District 3 positions pits Jarod DeLozier, a 32-year-old coffee shop owner, versus two longtime Metro school employees: Jill Speering, a retired teacher of 35 years, and Fred Lee, who worked as a teacher school counselor and coach for 33 years collectively.
The district, whose seat is currently held by departing board member Mark North, stretches from Inglewood, through Madison up to Goodlettsville.
DeLozier, a father of two who owns Ugly Mugs Coffee & Tea in East Nashville, said the idea of running for school board originated from talking to patrons at his shop who have shared a “whole spectrum” of attitudes about Metro schools. “It’s not always negative,” he said. “But we’ve also had regular customers who’ve decided to live out of county when their kids got to school age.
“What I don’t bring is a bunch of history from being in the system for a long time,” said DeLozier, whose one school-age child attends Dan Mills Elementary School. “For me, as a parent, that’s a good thing, a fresh perspective.”
DeLozier, who has earned the support of the chamber and the pro-charter Great Public Schools PAC, said he’s “open” to charters but added he’s “open to anything that’s on the table” to make MNPS a better system. “The state is sending a really clear message about the fact that we’re going to have charters as part of our system,” he said. “So I think the role of the board is going to be to discern how they’re going to work in our system, what role do we want them to play.”
Speering, who spent 25 years in Metro schools, said as a teacher she “identified kids falling between the cracks” and felt it her responsibility to ensure that no kids fall behind, particularly in the area of reading and writing. “We’ve been talking about closing the achievement gap for the 25 years that I’ve been in Metro schools, and I’m not sure we’re much closer than we were 25 years ago.”
Speering said she believes instruction is geared too much toward state-mandated TCAP test. Endorsed by the MNEA, she said teachers lack adequate support, citing the state’s decision to strip collective bargaining rights from the union. Speering said she generally supports charter schools as offering great choice but she has some concerns.
“Nationally speaking, only 17 percent of charter schools are doing better than their local counterparts,” Speering said. “It’s not a panacea, and I’m afraid some organizations do see it as a panacea.”
Lee, a licensed attorney endorsed by SEIU, is an adjunct professor at Tennessee State University. “Everything I’ve done in my life points toward it,” Lee said of his school board run, adding that it provides a way to give back to the community where he grew up.
Lee said the “honeymoon period” is about over for Register, arguing the superintendent needs to “start standing up” to special interest groups: He named the mayor and the chamber.
Lee cited “choice” as one of the school district’s biggest needs, particularly additional academic magnet schools without sacrificing diversity. “We need to slowly move these magnet schools further into the suburbs, which are now more diverse than they’ve ever been,” he said.
Lee said he also supports the expansion of the International Baccalaureate program. He’s wary of charters. “What I’m finding out about charters schools, I’m not liking,” he said.