In recent months I have been closely following the MNPS Board meetings. As a former Board member, present Council member, and great-grand parent of a Metro student, I feel compelled to write this letter to the current MNPS Board Members.
In the early 70’s the Federal Court adopted a so-called cross-town bussing plan to expedite desegregation of Nashville Public Schools. After several more years of delayed desegregation of all schools in the district, the Court again entered an order which was referred to as the “Agreement in Principle.” However, the Court declared that the district could return to the Court and request “Unitary Status.” This status meant there were no longer any vestiges of discrimination that segregation had caused for Black children. In other words the effects of years of discrimination were gone forever. And as early as 1998, the Court agreed that all vestiges of discrimination had been eliminated in less than one generation and thus granted Metro schools “Unitary Status.”(WOW)!! This decision allowed the school system to begin to dismantle bussing and rezone the district.
I became a member of the Board in 1985 only two years after the “Agreement in Principle” was implemented. From the very moment of my arrival on the Board, there were some members who wanted to return to the Court to seek unitary status, even as black students were still scoring at double digit rates below their white counterparts and being suspended and expelled from school at 2 to 3 times as often. Although much lip service was given to the whole issue of equity, very little real effort was taken to eliminate these disparities. Of course, the fact that the school system had continuously been confronted with an inadequate budget made it even more difficult to address these inequities. Too often, when there was an effort to address specific needs at schools in disadvantaged areas, there would be an outcry from other schools in more affluent areas regarding the unequal distribution of funds. This fact had always been true regarding the distribution of Title 1 funds for years and apparently is still the case today. However, what is forgotten in this discussion, but what must be remembered is EQUITY does always mean EQUAL when trying to level the playing field.
Actually past actions, policies, and pupil assignments have further crippled the ability to address the whole issue of equity across the system. For example, the 2009 pupil rezoning plan created additional concentrations of disadvantaged students in various schools, especially in the North Nashville. Today, while many white middle class families are continually moving into heavily concentrated black and low income areas, they refuse to send their children to the nearby public schools.
I have been following the news media’s coverage regarding Dr. Joseph, and I am amazed at how much time and attention is being spent on finding fault in his administration rather than addressing the urgent issues around equity to help significantly improved educational opportunity for ALL children.
It is easy to make grandstand statements such as, “We must put kids first,” but it is a real challenge to actually do it. I constantly hear one Board member talk about how she successfully raised five boys, and I congratulate her. But how does this relate to our schools? It would appear she has a great message for a PTA or PTO group, but not in a Board meeting focused on ALL of Metro’s students with many and varied social, emotional, and academic needs. Too often has the misconception existed among parents that they can simply send their children to school with certain behavioral and academic deficiencies, and then they return home, like magic, as brilliant students complete with a whole new attitude and positive behavioral pattern. While it is true that schools strive to serve the needs of the whole child, they are primarily responsible for providing students the necessary skills and knowledge to equip them to become good citizens. To blame a recent rise in juvenile crime on our schools, as one minister has, is a cop out by parents, religious leaders, and the community at large to shoulder their part of the this growing societal concern.
Several of you have said calling for Joseph’s removal is not racially motivated, and it shouldn’t be. But looking back over the many years I served on the Board facing many of the same challenges, missteps, corrective actions etc., it certainly feels like there are racial overtones regarding your actions toward him. Many of the same complaints I hear today regarding contracts, department heads, salaries, teacher morale etc. are not new to just this administration. Most previous administrations faced similar if not the same issues, but none of them suffered the same public humiliation and disrespect that Dr. Joseph is encountering. However, it seems apparent that your remedy for all these continuing and sometimes frivolous complaints is not to correct them by policy changes and adequate funding but simply to replace the director at any cost to the system. This loud echo by three Board members and a handful of concerned but misinformed parents and community activists is a mistake and sends a terrible message not only to the African American adult community but also to aspiring young black children who see Dr. Joseph as a positive role model.
I beckon you to rise up, demand adequate funding for our schools, and give our first African-American school director a damn chance!! Don’t simply espouse catchy phrases we can all agree to like “focus on kids.” Put the money and resources in the right place to make this focus a reality. Create true Equity for ALL children. Please remember the public expects the Board as a body to set policy and effectively manage the school system. If you as Board members can’t manage one employee fairly, maybe some of you need to consider your own tenure.
With the atmosphere that exist today we can almost be assured the next batch of qualified candidates for Director will be either second rate or nonexistent. And I can assure you, they will shy away from trying to establish Equity in this school system if they want to keep their job. The real mistake Shawn Joseph made was to believe this city and school system was truly ready to close the GAP.
Council member 21st District
Former MNPS Board member