By Bill Freeman
I am concerned with the painful challenges that the new public schools budget will cause. Despite board approval for a budget that will increase when other city department budgets are being trimmed, our schools will still see cuts and eliminations of important and necessary services. The path to this contentious budget was rocky and full of problems. In all honesty, I cannot recall in recent memory when a MNPS budget development and review was more error-filled, contentious and problematic.
Under Dr. Joseph’s new $924 million budget that accounts for practically half of the entire budget for all of Metro Nashville, he put many budget cuts on the table, each one as worrisome as the one before it.
First, we were told that free lunch to our students was at risk of elimination. Taking food out of the mouths of hungry children? That is absurd. And wrong. Following a deserved uproar, that option was removed from the table nearly as quickly as it was put on.
Then we were told that we would lose social workers during the most trauma-filled season of life that nearly any of us can recall. After heated and passionate discussion by the very social workers who were facing elimination and those teachers, parents and educators who vouched for the urgent need for social workers, that option was removed.
Then, the painful decision was made to eliminate Reading Recovery, the very program that has been in place for years and is designed to help the reading skills of our students—so many of whom come to school hungry, homeless or speaking a language other than English. Because of this action, I am very worried that our academic support underpinnings will be severely hampered. Yes, we must make sure our students are not hungry and feel safe and loved. That’s step one. It’s only then that they can productively learn. But learning is the entire foundation of school. Without the ability to read well, learning and success will be limited for that child’s entire adult life.
However, I am even more disturbed at the issues that this problematic budget process has uncovered. We are hearing reports of mismanaged funds, of contracts being enacted without board approval and stipends and boondoggle trips being paid for by outside interests and subjective companies seeking influence over our schools.
Despite the success and growth that Nashville is touting these days, we are facing a budget shortfall. Every department must face hard choices. Our Chamber of Commerce continues to support the growth of middle Tennessee over the growth of Nashville. Our small businesses must fight for survival without the protection that small businesses need to grow and thrive. Yet, among the challenges that face all of us in Nashville, you would expect to see honest dialogue and partnering with each other for as absolutely as long as possible to get the job done. You don’t start slinging mud at the first tough question. You don’t call names when others ask for answers to hard but fair questions. You don’t retaliate when you don’t like something. But it certainly happened during this budget review process.
This is a problem in the extreme. I joined all of Nashville with the hope that Dr. Joseph brought with him when he was first hired. He promised to a partner with the school board, with schools, with parents and with students. We have seen some good work come from his team in the past two school years, but there are signs of trouble that every Nashvillian should be worried about.
Rev. Enoch Fuzz, one of our most treasured ministers, spoke persuasively and bluntly at the school board’s public hearing on April 12, 2018. He spoke of the importance to protect children all the way through school and, to put it plainly, that we needed to put our money where our mouth is. He spoke to Dr. Joseph and the board when he said, “I don’t like to hear you say, ‘Cut budgets.’” He went on to speak frankly about the board’s previous comments about the acceptable lack of graduation rates and college acceptance. Dr. Fuzz took them to task when he said, “There are 15 boys in our church in college. We don’t say, ‘College is not for everybody’ at our place.”
Most importantly, Rev. Fuzz reminded all of us the importance of making sure our values are reflected in our spending. He reminded everyone of former Vice President Joe Biden, who said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Dr. Fuzz put it to them squarely when he used his own personal example of taking a pay cut in years past. He said, “Any public employee who’s making six figures who can’t take a four-figure pay cut, you don’t tell me that children are important. Our children are important. You make six figures and you can’t take a four-figure pay cut for a couple of years to help get things on track, you don’t care about no children. You care about yourself.”
As encouraged as I was to hear Rev. Fuzz’ honest and heartfelt words, I was equally as dismayed to see the divisiveness that occurred over this budget process. Not two days before Rev. Fuzz spoke so encouragingly and Rep. Harold Love, Jr. showed his support for the board and this difficult budget season, Michael Milliner of the local Gamma Phi chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity had some low blows to deliver.
He twisted honest questions put to Dr. Joseph by board members into allegations of being bought by outside special interests, accused them of racist actions and even implied that they had attempted to derail the selection process of Dr. Joseph because of the color of his skin. Well, the truth of the matter is that School Board member Amy Frogge and Vice Chair Jill Speering – the very women that Milliner had such ugly words for – were the two women who had recommended interviewing Dr. Carol Johnson for the Director of Schools position. She happens to be an African-American woman and a fine educator who led Boston’s public school system. So why would Milliner accuse Frogge and Speering of racist behavior, when their actions are anything but? It was wrong of Milliner to accuse them of untoward behavior and come close to threatening them, if you ask me. He said repeatedly to each of these two board members, “We will not forget” when he called them by name with every accusation he made.
I’m sure it was horrifying to these board members to be accused of such a thing, when their entire focus has always been to improve Nashville’s schools so that all students can thrive. MNPS has a decidedly diverse student body coming from all walks of life and from all racial and ethnic groups. Our diversity is what makes us strong, and I would never question anyone on our school board’s commitment to their job, and I certainly wouldn’t accuse them of racist behavior. That was uncalled for.
When Nashville must struggle for every dollar we make and every budget decision must be made carefully, this is not the time to hit below the belt. When our school board must decide whether to cut social workers or school lunches or reading assistance, they are clearly facing difficult decisions. What is proper is questioning past decisions of outside contractors paid millions through unauthorized purchase orders and gaming the system to avoid board approval. That’s what needs to be questioned—not the ethical behavior of our elected school board members. As Rev. Fuzz said, “You pay for what you want and what you believe in.” We don’t need angry threats and empty accusations. We need productive discussions, consensus and agreement. And most importantly, we need to keep the focus on the success of our children and grandchildren. As school board member Tyese Hunter said when she thanked those who had attended the April 12th meeting, “You all came to us and presented the lives of our children, and that was what we needed to hear during this budget process. More than anything, we needed to know about the lives that – of the decisions that we’re going to make – that will be impacted by those decisions.”
Bill Freeman is the chairman of Freeman Webb Inc., a real estate investment, management and brokerage company based in Nashville, which he co-founded in 1979. He is a Democratic Party fundraiser, the former treasurer of the Tennessee Democratic Party, a member of the Metro Nashville Airport Authority, a member of the Board of Trustees for Tennessee State University and was appointed by President Obama to serve on the advisory board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.