Election may bring new look to school board

Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 11:45pm

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.”

Low turnout

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.

Good competition

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.”

7 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 7/12/10 at 6:16

The Board is losing 3 of it's best and most qualified members.
These constant changes don't bode well for understanding and
keeping an administration ona desired course for our system.
In spite of that I'd be one to hope we keep elected boards
versus Appointed ones which the "Educational Establishment"
is trying to push on a state and national level. That would truly take the taxpayers out of the picture and open the doors for who knows what.

By: morpheus120 on 7/12/10 at 8:20

Leave it to the Chamber to pretend that we're "turning the corner" in Metro Schools.

Their pet project, charter schools, is flailing as Global Academy has to shut down. Students are still being left unattended on buses thanks to another Chamber-endorsed tactic called "downsizing". And now, the Board does the Chamber's bidding by letting a private contractor come in to our schools and clean it, even though GCA has a history of hiring sex offenders and illegals. Meanwhile, hundreds of loyal employees who have worked our schools for decades are hung out to try in the name of "fiscal responsibility", which was all a big lie by Jesse Register as he admitted in front of the Metro Council last month. And how well have those test scores improved under our new pro-Chamber school board? The results are negligible at best and even down in some areas.

What a sick joke. The only way Metro Schools is going to "turn the corner" is if we get a new School Board who quits letting the Chamber try their goofy "free market" experiments on our children. It's bad enough that my tax dollars are supporting the Chamber's new Convention Center, but I'd gladly keep paying it if they just took the money and went away. They're doing more harm than good to my kid's education and to our whole city.

By: global_citizen on 7/12/10 at 9:18

I find it a little disingenuous for Kay Simmons to say she feels like she's just now "gotten her wings". She been involved with MNPS for many years.

She's been the Executive Director of Nashville Alliance for Public Education and former assistant to Pedro Garcia.

I realize she's probably talking specifically about her new position on the school board, but she's not just getting her feet wet by any means.

By: kayssimmons on 7/12/10 at 1:48

I must reply to global_citizen. Of course, I was responding to the subject of the article and not my 35 years of experience in schools.

By: smartcookie on 7/12/10 at 3:39

I must disagree with you, Ms. Simmons. You simply do not have the educational experience needed to be on the School Board. After reviewing your resume, I can not find one day that you have spend as a teacher in a public classroom. In fact, your major in college was Public Relations, not Education. If you had taken the time to learn anything about your opponent, Ronnie Osborne, you would know that he has actually spent time in public schools as a teacher and administrator. While you spent your career in fund-raising and media outreach, Osborne was actually "earning his wings" in the Tennessee public school system and college system. It is a bit late for you to "get your wings," because people's lives, including custodians, teachers, secretaries, and most importantly, the students of Davidson County, depend on experienced and skilled decision-making from School Board members. We do not need someone learning how to get her wings. You simply are not qualified.

By: eljs on 7/12/10 at 9:54

My opinion watching this board is they have been not afraid to make really bold decisions no matter how tough. I would think being on the school board is a thankless job. Ms. Johnson who is mentioned in the article and one I and many others have watched has caught much heat for tackling very tough issues. I don't think she abstains very much if any at all. I really appreciated her vote for the custodians and her stance. I also appreciate that she explains why she votes on the many different issues such as the rezoning, the custodians and many more controverial issues that have come before this board. She is a leader that probably is not appreciated. That was seen in the most recent election you mentioned for her run for higher office as Juvenile Court Clerk. I wish her well and appreciate her service and I hope others in this city will also show appreciation to those members who are leaving due to time demands and welcome the new members with much support. The school board is a hard job that is thankless and our city should be thankful that anyone with a strong background is willing to run and serve in a school board capacity.

By: smartcookie on 7/14/10 at 1:21

eljs -- I appreciate your thoughtful comments, and I agree that serving on the School Board is a thankless job. I also agree that anyone with a strong background willing to run for this position should be appreciated, and that is why I encourage all voters to take a look at Ronnie Osborne in District 9. He is, hands down, the most qualified to take the seat on the School Board because he earned his BS and MS in Education, and taught in the Tennessee public school system for almost a decade. Kay Simmons has an impressive resume, but it is not in education. If we want someone to write a press release or raise money for the School Board, she is the person! If we want someone sitting on the school board who actually understands Tennessee's educational system, vote for Ronnie Osborne. I say once again...Kay Simmons is simply not qualified.