Two years ago, David Fox took the reins as school board chair from Marsha Warden, who opted against another term on the nine-member board. The contrast in styles was apparent from the outset — the fiery Warden versus the introspective Fox. While Warden’s school board occasionally butted heads with then-superintendent Pedro Garcia, Fox led a unified front with Director of Schools Jesse Register.
It was Fox and his eight colleagues, after all, who hired the former Chattanooga superintendent 18 months ago to oversee Metro’s struggling school system, a move Fox said is gradually resulting in a district-wide turnaround. Today, the board sometimes seems like an extension of the administration, or Register an extension of the board — in unison virtually every step of the way.
Last week, Fox presided over a Metro school board meeting for the final time. Just as Warden attributed her resignation to time constraints with her job as a nurse, Fox said the demands of board chair made it impossible to keep up with his work in the financial sector. His replacement on the board is developer Michael Hayes, who has enjoyed Fox’s full support. It’s still unclear who will replace Fox as chair.
CP: Register and Mayor Karl Dean recently unveiled a new teacher retention and recruitment plan. It doesn’t address changing the way the district pays teachers. Do you believe a performance-based pay plan for teachers is the direction MNPS should eventually go?
Fox: I do. I wouldn’t be alarmed by the lack of a tie-in there right now because I understand what’s going on process-wise. TEAC [Teacher Education Accreditation Council] — we’re waiting on that organization, which Dr. Register is a part of, to finalize a solid and reliable evaluation program. Because, frankly, the interest of the teachers’ union and the school system is very well-aligned in an evaluation. We don’t want to have bogus measures of performance. We want there to be clear and objective standards, but we also want to have sort of a holistic measurement style that takes into account observations and things to ensure that we are able to reward people who are highly effective, and we want that to be reliable.
CP: Your tenure as board chair was marked by general lockstep agreement between the board and Register. Should the board serve as a check to the administration or as a partner?
Fox: I think a lot of what you’re seeing is a reflection of how Dr. Register interacts with the board. For example, if there’s something that he knows is going to be controversial, he’ll have one-on-one conversations with board members. Sometimes he will conclude something is just not worth pursuing. He makes those calculations, so there is an unusual amount of agreement that we see publicly in board meetings between the director of schools and the board, but I think a lot of it is sort of pre-planned because he really knows how to work with the board in a way that few CEOs do. But by and large, I think the role of the board is not to be a regulator, but to set the vision and largely stay out of the way, monitor results and provide feedback. I’m not an educator, and so the students don’t need me intervening on academic decisions. They just need a board that can spot good talent in a CEO, a superintendent, monitor results and take action when necessary.
CP: The district just completed its first year of a controversial new student assignment plan that critics called a deliberate attempt to re-segregate black students from white students. You voted for the plan. Proponents, you included, have called it a way to foster more parental involvement. Has it worked? Has it been successful?
Fox: I think the student assignment plan was very good and is likely going to prove to be a national model for how to rezone a district, and to do so sensitively. I like the plan because I took great exception to our [previous] system that made it nearly impossible for our most at-risk students to do after-school activities and for their parents to get involved in their schools. These lower-income students and their families are some of the least mobile residents in our community. And when they are required to attend schools 10 to 15 miles away, it makes it impossible for those families to get involved at the school level.
The fact is, we were equally unsuccessful whether the children were being educated in urban schools or suburban schools, and it was evident that we had to do things radically differently if we really wanted to be successful with these most at-risk students. We’ll start seeing results later this fall to see if that’s been helpful. It will take a few years really, I think, to have a reliable judgment on that.
CP: The end of your tenure has been marked by the decision to privatize the district’s custodial services to an outside company. Critics say it’s the only beginning — privatizing bus services is next, they say. Should custodians be the extent of outsourcing?
Fox: I think all decisions have to made to maximize the academic welfare of our students. The decision to outsource custodial allowed us to protect $6 million to $7 million in the classroom that we couldn’t have done otherwise. I hope the new board continues to look and find other ways to achieve efficiencies so that a greater percentage of our resources can go into the classroom. I don’t know if outsourcing transportation is a good idea or not. It’s not something I have studied, but I’ll leave it up to the board to examine all of our operations to try to find ways to ensure that more of our funding reaches the classroom.
CP: Do Nashville’s thriving private schools present a challenge to Metro Nashville Public Schools? Seventy-five percent of Metro school children qualify for the federal free-and-reduced lunch program. How can the district ever thrive when middle- and upper-class children continue to attend private, not public, schools?
Fox: I think it’s essential to future funding that our school system become more effective in attracting back the middle class. There’s been an enormous exodus of the middle class that’s gone on for 30 years now. I don’t think right now we need a marketing campaign. I just think we need to continue getting our house in order, to continue ramping up the quality of our services, see the results we’re talking about, to make the gains obvious over the next few years. And when that happens, I expect we’re going to see a significant return to the public school system by many middle-class students who are no longer participating. It will be one of the most encouraging and hopeful things that will happen because it will tie our tax base in a very personal way to these educational services. And I think that has to happen for the future funding of our schools to be secure.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.