Fox a likely choice to chair the School Board

Friday, September 5, 2008 at 3:31am
David Fox, who is vying to be the next school board chairman, says the chair plays a key role in guiding board workflow. File

School board member David Fox has expressed enthusiastic interest, publicly, in becoming chair of the Board of Education — and many close watchers of the board think he may be the heir apparent.

However, only the members of the Board get to choose, and the decision won’t be made until the board’s regular meeting next week.

Board members Gracie Porter, Jo Ann Brannon and Karen Johnson have said they would be willing to serve in the position, if elected. The last time a chair election took place, Porter ran unsuccessfully for chair, and Johnson ran unsuccessfully for vice chair.

Board members have expressed sentiments of openness to whoever is elected chair.

“We each have our opportunities to make change and to agree and disagree on issues,” Brannon told The City Paper last week. “I think we all will be able to work well together. It’s a matter of keeping us in focus and providing that leadership that is necessary to conduct the meetings, and also to bond us. It is a very important role.”

With all the issues currently facing Nashville’s public school district, chairmanship of the school board may seem a minor matter, interesting only to those most invested in local politics. But some board members take the issue very seriously. So do some education stakeholders, who work with the board.

The chair position is a highly visible one, and demands more public appearances than regular board work. The chair is often the first member of the board contacted by news reporters. And many believe that an organized, highly focused chair can facilitate strong relationships with the Mayor’s Office and with Metro Council members, who ultimately make decisions about funding public schools.

Marsha Warden, who has chaired the board for two terms, stepped down effective the beginning of August. Warden has said that her work, as chair, took about 30 hours each week.

“It is a big responsibility, and it requires quite a bit,” said Porter, adding that the chair can play a role in continuing to build trusting relationships, and to lead the significant work in store for the board this year. “If it’s done properly, I would think that any chair would want to give as much as they could to that position.”

As for Fox, he told The City Paper that the chair can play a role in guiding board workflow. He said he hopes that, if he is elected chair, he could help streamline board agendas to more effectively open up the office to individuals with full-time jobs. Fox said he currently spends about 25 hours per week on school board duties.

“I’m hopeful that the position of a board member evolves into something more resembling a traditional board position of other large organizations, so that we don’t disqualify such a large portion of the community here who have full-time jobs,” Fox said. “There will always be an infinite number of activities that board members can get involved with, if they choose to. It will be up to an individual board member to manage some of it. But I think there are parts of it that could be better contained.”

Fox is notable among board members for having publicly stated, earlier this year, his belief that the school board would benefit from a structure in which the mayor appoints all members.

Shortly after that statement, freshman Metro Council member Sean McGuire proposed a Council resolution advancing the idea. Mayor Karl Dean later stated that he was not necessarily interested in obtaining that authority, and the matter blew over.

Fox says that his ideas about the structure of the board are not incongruous with his interest in serving as chair.

“I’m a pragmatist, and I want to do whatever I can to improve the quality of our public education system,” Fox said.

Before deciding to run, he said, he thought about the board’s current role at MNPS, considering the current high degree of involvement of the state Department of Education in district affairs.

While Fox has said that he “expects” he will be running for the position, he added that he doesn’t have a “high-stakes,” personal ambition to become chair.

“I think there are plenty of capable people on the board who could be chair, and so I’m not really stressing it,” Fox said. “I’ll be happy with whatever outcome we have Tuesday night.”

There is ample speculation in political circles as to who will ultimately be elected the next board chair. But the result is not a foregone conclusion. At next week’s board meeting, nominations will be accepted, then each board member will vote to determine the chair.

“From my perspective, I don’t see an obvious choice,” Porter said. “You can only be chair if your board members think you’re capable of serving in that position.”

Board vice chair Ed Kindall — a former chair himself — is now acting chair, until a new chair is elected. He has said he isn’t interested in the position. So have board members Steve Glover and Mark North.

While the board chair plays a role in setting agendas and running meetings, as well as being in charge of appointing board committees, the chair has no more voting power than other members.

And the board’s governance process policy states explicitly that the chair has no more leadership authority over district staff than other board members. The chair should “refrain from exercising any authority as an individual to supervise or direct the Director [of Schools],” and that all board members’ “interaction with the director and with staff must recognize the lack of authority vested in individuals.”

But the chair can play a big role in determining the timing of discussion of key issues. As the chair and vice chair work together in setting agendas, they have an opportunity to decide when public board deliberation on specific issues takes place, according to board member Johnson.

“They do, to a certain extent, determine what discussions take place when,” Johnson said.

Chairs of the Board of Education serve one-year terms, and typically serve no more than two terms in a row, unless a major issue or decision is prolonged and creates reason for a third term. Tradition holds that new board members are not nominated for the position, as a certain level of school district knowledge is helpful.

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By: michael thomas on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I would rather see out of the choices here, porter or brannon or johnson. My reason being, fox is not a people person, he does not really like to deal with other races, i know this because i have seen this. Many components that make up the position requires that you deal with all people and i truly do not see that in fox. At meetings he will look you right in the face and will not speak to you unless your on his side of things. During the school budget he has a answer for everything but support workers. He is not the right person for this position. BOARD MEMBERS do not fall asleep, it's time to push for change, and if you pick fox then you are asking for the same thing.

By: artsmart on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Not Brannon, a more clueless person I have never met. I needed help and she could not even tell me the Board's duties as it related to my problem. It was if she had just walked off the street.

By: dogmrb on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Don't think we need another westside, Chamber of C Board Chair.

By: global_citizen on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Mr. Thomas, having a legitimate disagreement on issues is a valid basis for not favoring Mr. Fox, but to smear him with insinuations of racism is uncalled for. Five members of the previous board were African American and I don't believe any one of them would concur with your assertion that Fox doesn't deal well with other races. That's absurd and scurrilous. Fox is smart, capable, and dedicated. It's true he won't charm you and put on a false front to make you feel good, but then I wish more politicians were like that, more honest and less smarmy.

By: EasyWriter on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I find this ironic considering his public suggestions on more than one occasion that he doesn't think the school board (translation: himself) is up to the task of managing Metro schools.

By: dogmrb on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Mr. Fox is appropriately named. If his goal is to not have a publically elected school board, why is he wanting to be Chair?

By: TC37212 on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Why are the two mutually exclusive? Even an appointed board would have a chair.