Ever since his first interview with the Board of Education, Jesse Register has talked about the need for a central office reorganization.
Before interviewing with the district for the director of schools job, he told board members in December that he had examined a full version of the organizational chart of Metro Nashville Public Schools. The structure made little sense, he said at the time.
That message didn’t change after being hired in January. In fact, on his first day on the job, Register told The City Paper about the need to reorganize, and has publicly conveyed the same message since.
Late last month, Register announced plans to “fresh-start” much of the central office of MNPS, with all employees in several large district departments — including some of the district’s highest-level officials in curriculum and instruction, human resources, finance, operations and student services — being asked to reapply for their jobs.
However, when Register made public last week the first details of the reorganization, few changes were made. Most of the district’s highest-level leaders — many of whom have been in place since the administration of former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia — are staying more or less where they are.
For those who believe changes at MNPS must start with administrators at the top, the news was underwhelming.
“I don’t believe that those selections represent any kind of a change,” said Erick Huth, the president of local teachers’ union the Metro Nashville Education Association. Some teachers, Huth said, have interpreted the lack of change as a sign that Register is interested in “maintenance of status quo.”
Marc Hill, chief education officer for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, called the details “reasonable.” But he’s waiting to see the results.
“It seems to be a reasonable approach. Pushing a large number of positions to the schools is a positive. The questions in any reorganization are, are the right people in place, and does the organizational structure allow talent to improve results?” Hill said. “Time will tell.”
Register never said he intended to swing the proverbial hatchet through the district’s central office, though many observers close to the system hoped it’s what he would do. He has told The City Paper consistently that his intention was to continue restructuring efforts made by the DOE, and that the most substantial part of the reorganization affects how schools work with the central office.
The intent, Register has said, is to change the district’s accountability structure so that principals and as-yet-appointed school improvement teams have the authority and flexibility to use resources based on individual school needs, with the administration holding those school leaders “highly accountable” for the results.
It’s important to understand that there still is plenty of room for Register to make big changes. He’s publicly emphasized the importance of a work group-based model for district reform, which charges groups of volunteers with studying — and possibly revamping — areas of district administration ranging from middle and high school reform to information technology.
And the biggest changes in Register’s organizational chart have more to do, so far, with the structure of the district than with the individuals named for specific jobs. The modified structure unveiled by Register includes big changes, the largest of which moves about $15 million worth of resources and more than 200 positions out of the district’s central office and into individual schools.
Board of Education Chair David Fox said Register has put in motion a “massive downsizing” of the central office, and engineering a “forklift upgrade” of the entire system. Moving millions of dollars of resources to classrooms is a “bold and profound change,” Fox said.
“Some people may interpret that the same names are his endorsement of the status quo. It really means he wants a more studied evaluation of the people we have,” Fox said. “A year from now, the organization is going to be unrecognizable. …The names on the various positions — that sorts itself out over time, as people demonstrate their effectiveness or ineffectiveness.”
In the last year and a half, unprecedented changes have occurred at MNPS. The district entered Corrective Action, and then Restructuring I, after failing for years to meet requirements of federal No Child Left Behind laws.
The Tennessee Department of Education has undertaken what is likely the biggest state-driven school system reform effort in decades, taking a significant level of control over the school system.
The district has seen three chief executive officers in the last year and a half — former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia, former Interim Director Chris Henson, and current Director Register.
Despite the changes, many of the district’s top administrators have stayed more or less in place since Garcia’s administration.
June Keel and Ralph Thompson have served, respectively, as associate superintendents for human resources and student services since Garcia was district chief. Sandra Tinnon, who was head of Garcia’s MNPS Department of Teaching and Learning, was reappointed through a state restructuring to the title of Assistant Superintendent for Middle Schools, a position she retains in Register’s restructuring.
Gregory Patterson, Garcia’s area director for the McGavock cluster and charter schools, was moved by a state restructuring into the position of associate superintendent for elementary schools, a job he keeps under Register’s plan.
Assistant Superintendent for High Schools Jim Briggs also received his current job title from the state DOE, and also remains in place in Register’s administration. Briggs was Garcia’s director of high school reform and innovation and head of the district’s high school redesign.
Tinnon, Patterson and Briggs all were appointed to their current positions by the DOE less than a year ago, and Register said in his public statement announcing the changes that he wants to give the three time in their current roles.
Though most of Register’s changes appear to deviate only slightly from the DOE’s reorganization, he does make a few moves. The most substantial change is the promotion of Linda DePriest from executive director of special education to assistant superintendent for instructional support.
DePriest retired from MNPS two years ago, before Garcia’s departure, and was hired back to MNPS by the DOE to lead a state-prompted reorganization of special education. DePriest’s work has been very well received by the local special education advocacy community.
Her new job in Register’s administration is as assistant superintendent for instructional support, a promotion from the executive director level of the organizational chart. Reporting to DePriest will be the district’s executive directors of federal programs, English Language Learning, special education and accountability.
Another change is a division of Henson’s responsibilities.
Henson, who worked as interim director of schools for one year, has been the district’s associate superintendent for business and facility services since Garcia was in office. Register’s reorganization divides that position into two jobs. Henson remains as chief financial officer, and Register is taking applications for a new chief operating officer.
Register also is hiring a professional accounting firm to restructure district business practices.
School board Chair Fox said these changes are noteworthy. According to Fox, he and others in Nashville had encouraged Garcia to create a COO position, but the change was not made. The new structure moves all of the district’s business and financial operations — including federal funds, an area the district has mismanaged in recent years — under Henson’s umbrella.
The position held by Kecia Ray, who was named associate superintendent for federal programs, has been moved down to the level of executive director by Register’s reorganization.
Register’s plan also includes Fred Carr, a former DOE contractor and colleague of Register when Register worked at Hamilton County Schools. Carr is Register’s assistant to the superintendent. Not on the organizational chart but still a significant part of changes at MNPS is John Norris, an independent contractor. Like Carr, Register and Norris have worked as colleagues for years.
The reorganization has only begun. Register has announced only who will fill the small number of positions at the very top tier of the district’s organizational chart, and the many other positions filling the central office — including the many positions effectively being moved from the central office individual schools — will be named by July.
But with Register keeping the same high-level department heads, and with those department heads helping Register make almost all subsequent central office restructuring decisions, personnel changes for existing jobs likely will be limited.
Whatever the impact of Register’s decisions will be, many folks will be monitoring the results very closely. And Mayor Karl Dean will be one of them.
Nashville will learn in late July or early August whether MNPS will be in a legal position that would allow Dean to be appointed trustee of the system — a role he has said he is preparing to fill. Register’s reorganization so far doesn’t seem to indicate that the mayor’s preparations have been put on hold.
Some, including the president of the local teachers' union, say Director of School Jesse Register has not followed through on promises of central office reorganization.