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Published in Print: November 19, 2008, as Nashville Governance Up in Air as Mayor Seeks Role in Schools

Nashville Governance Up in Air as Mayor Seeks Role in Schools

State is playing role in academically troubled district.

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The Nashville school district, in its first year under partial state control after failing to meet standards for five years in a row, is clashing with the city’s mayor, who is signaling a desire to run the schools.

The 75,000-student Tennessee district, which encompasses the city of Nashville and Davidson County, has faced uncertainty since the January resignation of school Director Pedro E. Garcia, who had led the district since 2001.

In the wake of Mr. Garcia’s departure, Mayor Karl Dean offered his assistance to the school board, saying he’d be willing to help find an interim leader and pick up the tab for the superintendent search.

The board chose Chris Henson, a district administrator, to serve as interim schools chief. Mr. Henson has been praised by state officials and union leaders for his leadership, but does not want the job permanently.

The school board plans to bring in candidates next month, but remains in a philosophical disagreement with Mayor Dean, who wants the panel to appoint an interim director for a year or two.

Board members, encouraged by state officials to seek stability, are looking for someone who will serve longer, said board Chairman David A. Fox.

“The board is committed to installing an excellent long-term superintendent as soon as possible,” Mr. Fox said. “We just know we need an experienced superintendent in place as soon as we can identify the right person. There’s no reason for us to delay at all.”

State Steps In

The Tennessee Department of Education made unprecedented moves to change the organizational structure of Nashville’s schools this past June. The state appointed three associate superintendents to oversee instruction at each level of schooling, along with new leaders for the district’s federal, gifted, and special education programs.

Before the summer was over, the state had also replaced 60 principals and assistant principals who were considered to be ineffective, said Connie J. Smith, the state’s assistant commissioner of education for accountability, teaching, and learning, who leads the intervention in the Nashville district.

The curriculum was changed to emphasize literacy and numeracy, and small learning communities were launched at some high schools, along with an expansion of career and technical programs.

The state is now giving the district a six-month trial period, which ends early next year, to make the state-organized plan work before other changes are made. Administrative staff members will be evaluated based on their performance during those six months, Ms. Smith said.

Mr. Fox said the state’s intervention has been instrumental in helping the school board understand the seriousness of the district’s academic failings and the need to act with more urgency.

“I think the state has given a significant service to our school system by what they’ve done,” he said.

Mayor Dean, meanwhile, has been presenting himself as an education mayor, meeting with community members and presenting a five-point reform blueprint that includes increasing school choice and boosting professional development. The mayor has also worked with business leaders to raise money to bring in Teach For America and the New Teacher Project, which are New York City-based organizations that recruit teachers.

Mr. Dean has said he wants to be ready if the district falls into a worse state accountability category after test scores are released next August, and the governor asks him for a plan.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, could use state rules to remove the district chief and the school board, or give control of the school district to a trustee, which could include Mr. Dean.

“I am preparing myself for any eventuality, and [takeover] is something that is clearly on the table,” Mr. Dean told The Tennessean newspaper this month. “And if we make progress and that is not an option, I am still going to be involved in schools.”

New laws may be needed, however, to give the mayor the power to run the school system and to clarify whether he would act as superintendent himself or appoint someone else. State law now says superintendents must devote “full time and attention” to the school job.

Legislation Looming?

Lydia Lenker, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bredesen, said Mr. Dean was invited to a recent meeting with officials from the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to discuss strategies for helping failing schools. The focus was on assisting all districts, she said, not just Nashville.

“Whether there is a need for legislation will be determined by the path Mayor Dean and Metro [school district] take to improve the school system,” Ms. Lenker said last week. “As for the governor’s specific intentions around education, Bredesen has been focused more on raising standards at the state level.”

The amount of upheaval in Nashville is unprecedented for the district and unlikely to end soon, said James W. Guthrie, the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Although the school board is moving forward with its search for a new leader, Mr. Guthrie said it would be difficult to get a top-notch candidate to come work in such an unstable environment. Anyone hired by the board this winter, he said, could be fired by the governor next summer if the school district failed to improve its No Child Left Behind standing.

“I suspect right now the board is frustrated, and I’m sure wants a superintendent,” Mr. Guthrie said. “But I don’t think the mayor does. I think he wants to get his authority in place.”

Ms. Smith of the Tennessee education department said it was too early to tell whether the changes initiated by the state would be successful, but that the city had already reaped some benefits.

“The community here is really rallying around the school system,” she said. “We have a mayor whose heart is in the right place and wants to do the right thing for kids. We do have communication now. We didn’t before.”

Vol. 28, Issue 13, Pages 8-9

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