Massive school staff shuffles sweep system

Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 12:00am

School’s out for summer. But while students celebrate no more pencils and no more books, major changes are happening at Metro Nashville Public Schools as officials undertake an unprecedented shuffling of school staff.

Hundreds of employees are being moved over the summer as several sweeping changes happen simultaneously. It’s the confluence of decisions made over the last year, and the result of some of the many changes that have happened at Metro Nashville Public Schools over the past few months — a new rezoning plan passed by the school board, a new director of schools, and unprecedented budget cuts.

• Nearly 100 teaching positions are being trimmed as a result of budget cuts made for the next school year. The budget cuts stem from drops in local sales tax revenues following economic troubles.

While officials have said repeatedly that no teaching layoffs will result from the position cuts there still will be changes made at individual schools. MNPS hires about new 500 teachers each year to manage the normal cycles of retirement and resignations, so the district plans to hire about 100 fewer than usual as a result of the cuts.

The teaching position cuts will be distributed among schools through a new staffing formula that officials have said is not intended to increase the student-to-teacher ratios in most classes. Rather, the intent is to consolidate or eliminate very small, under-attended classes, particularly at the high school level.

• A reorganization of the MNPS central office is taking place that will move more than 200 positions into individual schools — a move initiated by Director of Schools Jesse Register, who has said he wants resources moved from the central office to individual schools.

• Five schools are being fresh-started as a result of troubled academic histories — meaning that all teachers at those schools must reapply for their jobs. The decision to take this on now was made by Register and other officials at MNPS. Teachers hired for the fresh-started schools will receive 5 percent pay increases.

• Five other schools are being closed and two additional schools being opened by a new rezoning plan, with staff at all those schools due to be reassigned. The rezoning plan establishing this was passed last summer by the Board of Education, following recommendations from a community task force.

• Some adult high school education programs are closing to make room for two new adult high schools being established this fall. This is another change initiated by Register, who proposed the new adult high schools this spring.

After all that, district officials have said that most displaced teachers will likely find positions elsewhere in the district.

May mayday avoided?

Most staff members affected by the changes were contacted by school district officials by the end of May, according to information from June Keel, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. Hiring decisions for the five fresh-started schools are being completed with the input of principals at those schools, several of whom where only recently assigned to their schools. (See additional story.)

“Members of my staff have met with everyone affected by these changes, with few exceptions, advising them of what their rights are under displacement and telling them how we will work with them over the summer to find new positions,” Keel said.

Keel recently told members of the Board of Education that the district is “on target” to have all displaced staff in new positions and all staff for new schools identified by June 30.

At a recent new principal roundtable last week organized primarily for members of the media, Register fielded repeated questions about whether all the principal assignment changes, in particular, will foster undue instability. Register said it’s important to get the right people in the right places district-wide as soon as possible, though officials are walking a “tightrope” to balance the need for changes with the need for continuity.

“We have to create that new sense of stability,” Register said. “I think we’re putting the right people in the right places.”

As to the typical staff changes that are made every school year, Keel has told school board members that the district is working to minimize some of the problems experienced in prior years. Staffing projections were distributed to principals about six weeks prior to the time frame last year, moving up the process of identifying staff vacancies and hiring replacements.

The accelerated process could alleviate a repeated complaint of Metro parents: In the opening weeks of recent school years, noticeable numbers of teachers and school staff members have continued to be reassigned and placed by the district after classes began.

In previous years, this has happened as district staffing levels adjusted to the actual numbers of students enrolled at individual schools. Moving up the staff projection timeline is intended to ameliorate the situation.

Still, some people have trouble seeing that all these changes — under Register’s call for “a sense of stability” — will improve things to the extent the district hopes it will.

Shifts uproot school communities

Some parents and community members have voiced their concerns that staffing shifts associated with the rezoning plan will uproot the school communities serving some of Nashville’s economically disadvantaged students.

Compounding those concerns was the announcement that five schools (Whites Creek High, Napier Elementary, Cameron Middle, John Early Paideia Middle, Shwab Elementary) will be fresh-started.

At fresh-started schools, all staff members must reapply for their jobs. MNPS has fresh-started schools in the past, and typically only a few staff members have not been invited to return. But the district hasn’t fresh-started as many as five schools simultaneously, at least in recent years, and this is the first time the process has been initiated with Register at the district’s helm.

With the exception of Whites Creek, these schools serve students in some of Nashville’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.

Both sets of changes are portrayed, at least by proponents, as a means to facilitate long-run improvements for students. But in the meantime, concerns have been voiced that the reassignments cause a disproportionate number of changes for some of Nashville’s most vulnerable children.

Elois Freeman, a local educator and minister, believes the fresh-start decisions in particular merit a closer look. Freeman believes documents fueling the recommendations should be published, and points to the fact that the fresh-starts were made outside of the interventions required by federal No Child Left Behind laws.

“We have the right and moral obligation to make demands regarding the injustice of this process,” Freeman said.