Baptized in political controversy that spanned the better part of a year, members of the Metro Nashville school board are trying to reset the conversation.
Members indicated this week a desire to shift their attention from the politics of charter schools to looking at where the board ultimately wants to go — including zeroing in on teacher-focused issues like recruitment and training.
“I think this past year has been a particularly trying year for the school board, and a new board,” said Amy Frogge, an attorney and board member in her first year.
The Metro Nashville Public Schools board is days away from seeing the district’s new Strategic Plan, a document expected to lay out a blueprint for reaching the district’s goals. But some newer members of the board elected in August are beginning to discuss whether they want to trace back to the larger mission of the district or at least take a step back and right their footing.
Frogge and the rest of the board agree that too much of their time in the past year has been sucked up by fallout of an ugly charter school fight. What started as a rejection of Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies’ charter school on the basis of diversity and transportation concerns last summer became a catalyst for a high-tension standoff between the school district and the state.
The state then fined MNPS $3.4 million for repeatedly rejecting Great Hearts’ charter school application. The legislature followed up by crafting plans to let an outside group OK rejected charters in the Nashville area, although the idea narrowly failed this spring.
“We were under fire with Great Hearts, and I think that we have not had the opportunity to come together as a new board and talk about what our vision is,” said Frogge.
The board has since then trudged through creating a budget that included nearly $15 million in new dollars to accommodate a growing charter school population and pondered the need for a plan to afford charter schools long term. Then this week, the board approved four of six new charters that want to open their doors in the 2014-15 school year.
Frogge said she’s done approving new charter schools until the board and the district can come up with a plan to afford for them.
“I can’t in good conscience continue to vote for new schools if we don’t know how we’re going to pay for them,” she told The City Paper, adding that the board has spent a disproportionate amount of time focused on charter schools, which teach roughly 5 percent of the district’s students. “I think we need to make a lot of hard decisions as a district and come up with a clear financial plan so that we’re being fiscally responsible.”
Frogge wants to take a step back. She wants to revisit the board’s vision for the district and possibly edit or add to it in a way that gives the current board ownership of what direction it sees for MNPS to “ensure that we are operating together as a board. I think we have not,” she said. Fellow member Sharon Gentry, who is in her second term, isn’t so sure the district needs to reinvent the wheel.
“It feels like, because we have a new board that we need a new vision,” said Gentry who added it would make her “uncomfortable” if, for example, her employer, Hospital Corporation of America, changed its focus every four years. “It’s kind of freaky to change your vision.”
The more important focus needs to be tying the goals of the district together across the board, said Gentry.
Some of those goals might be trying to figure out what levers the district needs to pull to achieve the best results, said Elissa Kim, also a first-year board member. Her day job is serving as executive vice president of recruitment and admissions at the national teacher-recruitment group Teach for America.
One direction for the board to go is to focus more on teachers, addressing issues like where and how the district recruits teachers, and the quality of professional development training provided for educators, said Will Pinkston, a first-year board member who was formerly a political operative working for Gov. Phil Bredesen and now is a consultant who works on education issues outside Tennessee.
For example, Pinkston wants to have a better idea of how the district attracts future teachers to MNPS. A study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found nearby universities like Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University among the best in the country for teacher training programs.
“I just think it’s important for the board to start articulating what information it wants and when it wants to receive it, and not waiting for it to come to us,” Pinkston said.