There may well be a thaw in the frigid relationship between the Metro Nashville school district and the local teachers’ union.
The union’s relationship with the district seems to have improved markedly for the better in the last year. And the change is subtle in some ways, and very public in others.
But most close watchers of public education say there have been changes in the relationship between teachers’ union the Metro Nashville Education Association and the administration and school board of Nashville’s public school district.
Interactions between union and district officials appear to have become more friendly and collaborative. And the union’s influence appears to have grown.
At first glance, it would appear that the main reason for the change is that former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia has long since departed the district. Garcia and MNEA leaders had had a well-documented antagonistic relationship for years.
With the Garcia administration, the MNEA’s relationship with the district was “strained, at best,” said the union President Erick Huth.
Huth and administrators met once every two weeks until the last year, and then met once every month. The monthly meetings, Huth said, represented a “minimum,” as Garcia did not want to meet more often.
The union leader associated Garcia and the previous administration with “Machiavellian and draconian” measures that carried down through some individual principals, and he was not unwilling to state views along those lines while Garcia was still at MNPS. But Huth publicly supported Chris Henson’s appointment as temporary district head following Garcia’s resignation.
Friendship blooms in spring
The change was first observed earlier this spring, after an unusually friendly contract negotiation between the MNEA and district officials concluded.
The union was publicly credited by June Keel, the MNPS assistant superintendent for human resources, as well as by Henson, then-interim director of schools, for working collaboratively with the district.
Changes also are evident in the language of Tennessee Department of Education accountability chief Connie Smith, who regularly refers to the state’s partnership with the MNEA in various areas. One such area of partnership that has recently drawn public attention was the union’s role in providing information to the state that helped with the DOE’s recent overhaul of principal and assistant principal assignments.
But even with the changes, there have been concerns voiced by some that the state’s recent changes in principal and assistant principals may have given the MNEA too significant of a voice.
Smith has said, prior to the principal and assistant principal moves, that the MNEA was one organization consulted before making changes. The City Paper has heard from other community stakeholder organizations that other opinions — for example, that of Hispanic parents — were also considered. Smith has said that school performance data, over the course of several years, played the largest deciding factor.
The state has authority to make principal and assistant principal changes due to the district’s repeated failure to pass certain benchmarks required by state and federal No Child Left Behind laws. MNPS, as a district, is currently in NCLB’s “Improving” status. The district had been in “Restructuring.” giving the DOE authority to approve all staffing resources.
One school board member, Steve Glover, recently organized a meeting with three state legislators to discuss the state’s role with the school district. At that meeting, Glover noted that some of the principals moved by the state had brought about success and change at their schools in terms of NCLB. There appeared to be other factors playing a role in principal moves, and Glover highlighted public statements from Smith that the MNEA had contributed to the process.
Glover has said that he thinks it is important that public education decision-makers bear in mind the role that the MNEA is intended to play. He is “unnerved,” he said, by the fact that MNEA considerations may have played a role in the state’s decisions.
According to Huth, not all of the MNEA’s recommendations were acted upon by the state. And Smith has said that the MNEA has provided only a portion of the input for the decisions.
If the MNEA is ‘playing nice’ with the district and the state, it’s no surprise that relations with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce have softened as well.
Marc Hill, the Chamber’s first-ever Chief Education Officer, sees it.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to reach out to MNEA leadership, and they’ve been very willing to engage in dialogue,” Hill said. “We may not always agree on every issue, but we believe there’s a common interest in improving our schools and in creating an excellent school district.”
Hill said the Chamber has noticed that the MNEA clearly has a better working relationship with the new school administration. He said a lot of that has to do with style, with the willingness to sit down and talk openly about the challenges and be willing to work together. And for his part, Schools Director Jesse Register has made it clear that he intends to work collaboratively with the MNEA.
Huth agrees that the relationship is better, but there is a lot of baggage to unload. MNEA did drop its Chamber membership about three years ago, Huth said.
“We questioned whether we were really spending our money wisely, and we did get tired of getting beaten up by the Chamber,” he added.
“[Still,] at this point in time, I think we do have a better relationship with the Chamber,” Huth said. “I think partly because we made an effort to work with them better, and I think partly because they made an effort to work with us better.”
MNEA had a positive relationship with Hill when he worked with former Mayor Bill Purcell, and that has carried over to his role with the Chamber, Huth said.
“Give credit to Marc. I really think he lent a sense of direction and focus on issues rather than personalities,” he said.
Teachers need to be heard
In the past, MNEA relationships seemed to turn on issues where sides didn’t agree, such as charter schools, but now seems to favor issues where everybody can work together, such as the issue of teacher compensation.
“On that issue, everyone recognizes that the status quo isn’t getting us where we need to be. And while there may be differences of opinion on how it’s best to improve our schools as quickly as possible, it is important to be willing to have an open mind and actively search for solutions,” Hill said. “At the end of the day, you can’t have great schools without great teachers, and there’s a recognition that teachers have to be a part of the conversation about how we improve. ”
Teacher unions traditionally, rightly or wrongly, have been portrayed as obstructionists and unwilling to look at solutions that may be radical, according to Huth. And increasingly, he says, we no longer have the luxury of making incremental change and hoping that it works.
Though Huth and his colleagues are persons of influence, only a little more than half of Metro’s teachers are currently dues-paying MNEA members, prompting critics to assail the group for not being truly representative.
That percentage tends to be “fairly fluid” throughout the year and are lowest in the fall, but the MNEA is still working to “actively recruit” more teachers to the organization, Huth said.
“We represent every single one of them, by law,” Huth said.
It is the belief of Huth and others that unions that refuse to engage and to help in a search to find solutions risk becoming irrelevant. Perhaps the newfound willingness to collaborate more openly is a result of that belief — or at least the fear that it may come true.
Hill said the union leadership’s been clear that they’re willing to come to the table and talk, which is an important step forward. They also were collaborative partners in a Vanderbilt education study, which he cited as an example of the MNEA being willing to try something new.
The MNEA was founded in 1964. The relationship between superintendents and boards of education has changed for the good and for the bad over the years.
But it just may have been Garcia that prompted MNEA’s turnaround.
“It was very difficult when Garcia was director of schools in Nashville for us to have a positive relationship with him,” Huth said. “He seemed to have a mission to try to destroy us and undermine us, and appeared to spend a great deal of energy.”
Huth said when Henson was appointed as interim director he knew that the relationship would change quickly because of Henson’s respect for teachers.
“We never really felt that Dr. Garcia respected teachers,” Huth said. “I think Dr. Register is a lot more thoughtful and deliberate in what he does. Dr. Garcia was pretty much operating like a cowboy in the Wild West.”
Huth says that contrary to popular belief, the MNEA no longer merely stands for objecting to reforms.
“I’m not against reform at all,” he said. “What I’m against is this notion that the only reforms that exist are charter schools and performance pay, and that teachers and teacher unions can’t have any say in it because they’re against reform and they’re obstructionists.”