The Metro school board seems united in its call for the creation of district-wide diversity plan, but board members disagree on the timeline to create one.
And the central question is also unclear: What does diversity actually look like and how does Metro plan to ensure it? Mandating certain percentages of racial or socioeconomic student demographics isn’t an option — nor is that even the goal.
“We’re not talking about quotas,” Director of Schools Jesse Register said Tuesday at a board work session, which kicked off the process to create a diversity plan for the district’s some 140 schools.
“We’re talking about intention and direction,” he said. “Management is a good word, because what we need to realize is our community is becoming much more diverse and it’s changing very quickly.”
Tuesday’s work session came two weeks after the board voted 5-4 to reject the charter proposal of Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies, which led to the exit of the charter organization and the state’s decision to withhold $3.4 million in funds from the district.
Over its months-long pursuit for approval, Great Hearts continually ran into resistance over its diversity plan, with opponents eventually pointing to a state mandate that it adopt one that “mirrors” Metro’s. Great Hearts backers — and some school board members — pointed out that the district, in fact, lacks a single diversity-plan document.
Metro officials say the push for a diversity plan actually began last year when it tapped consultant Leonard Stevens, who would also serve as an expert witness in the district’s Spurlock v. Fox resegregation case. The Great Hearts situation, however, exposed a “blindside” for the district, one board member has said.
“We need to learn from the Great Hearts’ experience and do better as we go forward,” Register said. “But this process started almost a year ago now.”
School board chair Cheryl Mayes expressed an urgency to move quickly on adopting a diversity plan, pointing out that state law has changed for charter operators. Charters are now open for all students regardless of income — a law Great Hearts planned to take advantage of. Metro’s next charter application cycle is set for the spring.
“We need to move forward on this as quickly as we possibly can,” Mayes said. “We do not have a year. We do not have six months. We have got to get this thing on the table, and get it going, and get it going now.”
But board member Michael Hayes, a Great Hearts supporter, said he disagreed on setting such a quick completion time. “I think that this is an incredibly difficult decision to rush,” he said.
“Some of the reason we’re here this evening is, frankly, a knee-jerk reaction to what happened with the state over Great Hearts, and the way we acted, frankly,” he said. “But we can’t make that rush the process.”
Hayes later discouraged the board from implementing a “top-down approach” with “mandates” to ensure diversity.
The newly elected board initiated diversity-plan talks at a board retreat earlier this month. According to The Tennessean, Stevens introduced three possible models regarding racial, ethnic and other demographics: No one group makes up more than half of the student population; three racial ethnic groups each comprise at least 15 percent of the population; or two racial or ethnic groups each make up at least 30 percent of the school population.
“What you’re looking at is a floor, not a ceiling,” Register said of the percentages of the proposed models. “It’s not a quota. It’s a starting point or a goal.”
Mayes stressed that the board is currently working with an incomplete “draft” that is subject to change. Board members say they plan to invite input from state board of education members, Nashville charter operators, civil rights leaders and other community stakeholders as they create the plan.
A Metro diversity plan, still lacking a completion date, would require a future board vote for adoption.
“If we do this right, I think we can be a model for the entire state and the entire country,” board member Will Pinkston said.