Turnover within the nine-member Metro Nashville Board of Education is the norm, and this election cycle is no different.
Besides being time-consuming, the job — as anyone who follows public education knows — can be thankless. It puts mostly well-intentioned participants, often political neophytes, directly in the middle of divisive issues, forcing them to cast votes that have direct implications on Metro’s 75,000 students and the department itself, easily the city government’s largest revenue carrier.
At times, the $14,000 paycheck delivered to each board member probably seems like small consolation for all the public scrutiny.
Two years ago, it was a controversial new student assignment plan that opponents called a deliberate return to resegregation. It passed by a 5-4 vote, with member Karen Johnson taking most of the heat for being the supposed swing vote, a label she received perhaps unfairly because she’s African-American.
This year, the issue of the day was outsourcing school custodians and reducing the hours of bus drivers to free up some $10 million during a cash-strapped budget year. Again, five of nine board members voted for the plan, with school board chair David Fox taking much of the criticism delivered by local union leaders, Metro Council members and other opponents.
Given the demands, it’s perhaps no surprise that three school board seats have opened up this year. Johnson declined to seek a second term, choosing instead to take a stab at Juvenile Court Clerk, a run that proved unsuccessful. Fox opted out, citing time conflicts with his finance career. Member Steve Glover also decided against another go. He’s rumored to be eyeing the potentially soon-to-be open council seat currently held by Jim Gotto, who is running for a state House seat.
All three — Johnson, Fox and Glover — are hanging it up after just one term in office, and will be replaced by three individuals who are facing no opposition. Election Day is Aug. 5, with early voting beginning this Friday.
Meanwhile, two other incumbent board members, Jo Ann Brannon and Kay Simmons, face challengers. If they lose, the board would welcome five new members and change its composition by more than half.
It may seem like an unusually high turnover rate, but just four years ago the board underwent a similar makeover. But unlike then — when the board was generally perceived as factionalized in working with then-superintendent Pedro Garcia — more and more educators are today applauding members’ chemistry with Director of Schools Jesse Register. The fear for some is that sweeping changes to the board’s roster could slow down what they perceive as momentum.
“It’s a critical election for this school board,” said Marc Hill, chief education officer of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “There’s been a sense that Metro schools is turning the corner toward system-wide improvement. We don’t want to see that progress interrupted or halted. The performance of the board over the past 12 months has played a role in that positive trend.”
Though sure to be watched closely by Nashville educators, voter turnout for school board elections will likely be low. In 2008, turnout in board elections ranged from a low of 6 percent of registered voters in one district to a high of 10 percent in another. In 2006, which included more races on the ballot, the turnout percentage ranged from 18 to 33 percent.
Of the three assured future board members, unopposed in their candidacies, the one with arguably the highest name recognition is Michael Hayes, vice president of C.B. Ragland Co. real estate, who is set to take over Fox’s Green Hills seat. Hayes was a founding board member of Kipp Academy, an East Nashville charter school, and previously chaired the chamber’s Education Report Card Committee.
“I’ve been for the past seven years at the forefront of the effort to reform public schools in Nashville,” Hayes said. “I felt that now would be a good time, particularly with all the positive changes that have happened, to get more involved in a broader capacity.”
Then there’s Cheryl Mayes, slated to take over Johnson’s seat in Antioch. Mayes, who works in the finance department of Nissan North America, said she’s been active in Antioch for nearly 20 years and hopes to continue the “positive momentum” in Metro schools.
“I think it’s great,” Mayes said of the possibility of working alongside several first-time board members. “You want to keep it as fresh as possible. If you go 40 years with the same school board members, you’re going to get 40 years of the same type of decisions. Newer members tend to bring a new perspective.”
Replacing Glover, who represents the Donelson-Hermitage area on the board, is Anna Shepherd, a longtime volunteer in the McGavock High School cluster who is employed by the Catholic Diocese of Nashville. Shepherd said Glover approached her to run for the seat.
“We [the board] have to keep our sights on our main purpose, to improve the quality of education. That should be our one and only goal,” Shepherd said.
Of the two contested races, the more competitive one appears to be the race for the south Nashville district occupied by Brannon, a retired Metro teacher, since 2006. She’s hoping to stave off challenges from two others.
“I’ve been a part of some crucial decisions,” she said. “I think they’ve been in the best interest of students. That’s what I want to continue to do.”
One of Brannon’s opponents is Davette Blalock, a mother of young children whom she plans to send to public schools. Blalock works in insurance and real estate. Had she been on the board a few months ago, Blalock said she would have voted against outsourcing custodians, a move that Brannon approved.
“She’s got a good resume,” Blalock said of Brannon. “However, I have more of a reason to have the school system the best it can be. I have two kids that are about to start. … I don’t want to be just an easy rubber-stamp for whatever Jesse Register wants. That’s not what I’m looking to do.”
Brannon’s other opponent, Connie Hunter, could not be reached despite multiple messages left by The City Paper. A recent story in The Tennessean pointed out that Hunter didn’t vote in Metro’s general election in 2006, the last time the seat was contested. “If I don’t know the candidates, I don’t vote just to vote,” Hunter told the newspaper.
Incumbent Simmons could easily win the race to fill the west Nashville/Bellevue district.
Simmons’ opponent is Ronnie Osborne, a retired former assistant baseball coach at Mississippi State University and later at the University of Tennessee. A baseball is incorporated into the campaign logo on his website.
“One of the problems now is that we throw money at the system and not the schools,” Osborne said. “We need to look to start to down-size the system. The money should always start with the teacher, classroom and work its way out.”
With one year on the board under her belt, Simmons said, “I feel like I’ve just now gotten my wings, so to speak” to make more informed decisions. She knows little about her opponent, but has met all three unopposed candidates.
“They seem very good,” Simmons said. “It could change the dynamics of the board in ways we don’t know yet, but I really feel good about the people that are unopposed, and what the board potentially will look like. And hopefully, they’ll be able to operate as efficiently and effectively as they have in the past year.”