Dr. Shawn Joseph Publicly Addresses Issues With Board of Education

Dr. Shawn Joseph

Thank you Dr. Gentry for giving me this opportunity to speak to the board and the public. It was 25 years ago on this day, I committed to a life of service and to the values of Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance, and Uplift at Lincoln University. 

As my time in Nashville begins to wind down, I hope that our children, our employees, and our community have witnessed these traits manifested in every public and private interaction that I have had with you. It is important for our kids to see the adults who work from a value system. It really has been both my joy and honor to serve you.

Today, I want to take a brief moment to publicly address a few issues that have come up – that we just feel need to be addressed. It has saddened me a bit to see some calculated and relentless attempts to discredit the work that has been done. As a believer, we understand that the devil seeks to attack those of us who genuinely work hard to build God’s Kingdom as He would want it built up, particularly for underprivileged people, voiceless people, and those who have had it hard being at the forefront of our mind and our work.

When we see the behavior we have seen, which has resulted in my desire to not request a contract extension or stay in Metro Nashville Public Schools past June of 2020, it can be summed up in the teachings of the Arbinger Institute.

When the board and I started on this journey together a few years back, the majority of the board and our leadership team attended a training to avoid getting into this kind of place that we are in.

It is this need to be justified…this need to prove that we are right – that gets us into trouble. It is that need that has affected the board and administration’s ability to focus on our children. That’s what we should be doing – is focusing on our children. We all have a role to play in the problem, I don’t absolve myself from the role. We are all in it and all have a role to play in the solution.

Criticisms

We are in this place because we have some members who have forgotten the history of where we started as a district and a biased un-named news station that has continued to try to justify their behaviors in the name of accountability. One criticism that has continuously come up has been about the culture. In my very first interview with this Board of Education on May 5th, 2016, I actually had an opportunity to ask this board what was the most pressing issue for me to focus on if I were to be selected as your next Director of Schools. Jill Speering shared the following statement, “Teachers have lived in a culture of fear for about 10 years and some people say that is not true, but we hear it all the time. When I go out I hear it from principals and teachers, yet we haven’t been able to grapple with that in a way we can recognize it. (1 hour 13 minutes 4 seconds into the interview.) At 1 hour 15 minutes and 50 seconds into the interview, Amy Frogge shared, “Changing the culture here for the teachers and for everyone that works in the schools…because I think that if you can create a culture of support, coupled with high expectations, it will change things. Someone that can bring healing to the district that would be a servant leader. I think you understand from the quote you put in your resume.” That quote came from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Drum Major’s Instinct speech, and I will come back to that at the end of this talk.

Let’s discuss some of the specific criticisms. The main issues have been my license being flagged by the state, how we have handled sexual harassment issues, how we have spent taxpayer dollars, and our human resources audit. Since the media has refused to delve deeply and thoughtfully into any of these issues, I will briefly take executive privilege to address each issue.

First, I take seriously any failure to report suspensions, dismissal or resignations of MNPS employees that would warrant consideration for license suspension or revocation under State Board rules. There were 12 such instances identified during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. In our review, we found that 10 of these matters were mishandled by an employee in the MNPS human resources office who was offered the option to resign from our school district. Of those matters, we further found evidence that I had signed paperwork for the purpose of making reports to the state, but those reports were not submitted by the former employee who is no longer with MNPS. I regret that these matters were mishandled and I want the State Board to know that we have taken corrective action.

Second, I have identified structural deficiencies relative to how MNPS has historically handled, or in some cases mishandled, these situations. As you know, many large school systems have developed in-house legal capacity to ensure compliance with state and federal rules and regulations. For example, our friends in Shelby County Schools (SCS) has a general counsel and chief legal officer overseeing a team of more than a half-dozen attorneys in the district’s central office, in addition to legal support the district receives from the Shelby County Attorney. While SCS is larger than MNPS, we are the second-largest district in Tennessee with nearly 11,000 employees and I believe we could benefit from a similar but smaller in-house legal structure. Our attorneys at the Metro Department of Law concur that developing additional legal capacity is critical to ensuring future compliance, and they are reviewing the Metro Charter to determine the best path for doing so. Meanwhile, I have proceeded to hire an attorney on staff who is specifically detailed to the MNPS human resources office to help us avoid situations like this on a going-forward basis.

Finally, in discussing these matters with attorneys, my understanding is that MNPS is not the only school district in Tennessee to fail to report suspensions, dismissals or resignations of employees that would warrant consideration for license suspension or revocation under State Board rules. In the spirit of collective improvement, I stand ready to share our experiences and corrective actions with other districts, and I have respectfully requested that the State Board extend the same professional collaboration and courtesy to MNPS that it has given to other superintendents and districts around the state.

In a district with over 11,000 employees for the Director of Schools to potentially receive such a consequence is a bit extreme. This is an issue that the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents should take up because I believe the intent of the law is to make sure school districts are doing the right thing. The intent is not to destroy the livelihood of Directors of Schools who are unaware of the under-performance or under-reporting of employees. I do not believe the intent of the law is for the Director of Schools to become a human resources official. The employees who sent the forms reported to two employees under me, and it is unrealistic for the head of an organization as large as our organization to know that individuals have not done their work properly. Particularly when our legal team and others followed-up and directed individuals to do their jobs properly. Once I was aware of the issue, swift action was taken and we strengthened our processes. I am working with the state to address this issue, and I am confident that reason will prevail.

Sexual Harassment

I want to clearly communicate that, I do not tolerate sexual harassment at all.  We have strong school system policies, and it is my expectation that all employees follow our policies. Since the issues have arisen, I have taken the following five actions:

1. STRENGTHENING SYSTEMS: To improve the handling of harassment issues in the district, the Employee Relations team and other HR staff have worked to establish consistent processes, procedures, and training sessions in the central office and schools – as well as a system of checks to ensure the processes are being implemented and working.

2. INCREASED TRAINING: In the second half of 2018, the Executive Officer of HR for Talent Strategy, in partnership with the Metro Legal and with input from principals and other leaders, developed a robust leadership investigative training program entitled Investigative Processes and Legal Responsibilities. A total of six (6) sessions were held this past January, and 283 leaders attended.  Additional sessions are being held in early April for those principals and Central Office leaders who were unable to make the January session; mid-level leaders will also be invited.

This training iterates information that leaders have seen previously, but also introduces new information and improved tools for leaders’ use. Leaders have been given documented processes, procedures, laws, policies, forms and templates and reporting requirements. Leaders’ obligations to create a safe environment are emphasized. The training also addresses the importance of clear, concise, signed and dated documented investigation notes.

The Employee Relations team is also working on developing an online harassment and discrimination training session for all employees, which is slated to be implemented early in the 2019-2020 school year.

3. HOTLINE:  We sent an email to all employees informing them of a structure in place for employees to report concerns confidentially. We encourage employees to use the confidential hotline or reach out directly to the Employee Relations team.

4. PERSONNEL: To improve turnaround time on investigations, the administration’s FY 2020 budget proposal seeks to add another .5 FTE to the HR budget for the Employee Relations team.

5. DIALOG: To strengthen empowerment, I and others are engaging with staff through voice sessions at the quadrant and district level, as well as various teacher and parent groups. These conversations offer opportunities for staff and parents to share concerns and generate solutions. Some participants have followed up with questions, and we have worked to respond quickly and work together to address concerns.

Many of these items were underway prior to the report, but we will be sure to follow through on them.

Contracts

Let me start by saying that I spent less than my predecessor on contractual services. The difference is I did cut ineffective contracts of friends of certain board members at the beginning of my tenure, and I have dealt with one board member who has been angry since October of 2016.

Any board would understand that a CEO, who has a track record of success in getting results, will bring with him/her knowledge of services that have been successful. To try to make an argument that because I have worked with a company in an ethical and professional way in an environment that had better results than we have and to try to paint those actions as illegal and/or unethical is insulting.

All business actions that have been conducted under my leadership have been ethical. A long-time procurement official unknowingly made mistakes and corrective action was taken to follow a thorough review of all contracts by Metro legal.

It is unfortunate that Metro Legal did not catch the error when signing off on the contract and then, once again, failed to flag the issue when the contract was brought to the board floor for your approval.

I am a Director of Schools. I am not an attorney nor am I a procurement expert.  It my job to correct issues when they arise and I have done so by requiring our procurement team to be retrained, working with Metro Legal to ensure that their signature actually means that we are following the law, and disciplining the individual(s) responsible for the errors.

Over the course of the past two and a half years, I have pushed this organization with a sense of urgency and I do not apologize for it. This school system did not have the urgency that was needed to get the results we sought, namely being the fastest improving urban district in America.

If there was a mistake that I made, it was that I pushed too hard with too little resources, and as a result, people made human errors. The errors were not intentional or willful as our audit communicated. They were just errors. As long as the errors were not unethical or immoral, we treated our employees fairly as we disciplined them.

Human Resources Audit

As you may recall, I requested that the board audit our human resources audit, and I was appreciative that the board agreed. My intent was to know if there were any errors in how we handled sexual harassment investigations. The audit did not find errors in the conclusions that were drawn. It did find that processes could be strengthened, processes that had been broken for years long before I arrived.

Due to the lack of confidentiality of board members, to this date, my team still has not met with the law firm to understand how they came to their conclusions. It is unreasonable for anyone to expect me to follow all of the audit’s recommendations if we have not had the opportunity to sit down and understand the methodology that was used to draw conclusions. As a qualitative researcher, I have been trained not to accept generalizations without understanding the processes used – particularly when you are talking about qualitative work. Processes, in these types of reports, is critical in determining which recommendations are valid and which may not have had enough credible information to be validated. Once the board provides me with guidance on how we can best engage with the legal firm that conducted the report, an update can be given. The action plan that was created was a start to what will be a multi-year process to support a department that has been woefully under-supported and woefully under-funded for years prior to my arrival.

Conclusion

I’ll conclude by saying that it has truly been my honor serving as your Director of Schools. I have worked with a sense of urgency and with an equity agenda. As a result of the great work of our employees, that equity agenda has shown great returns and results including::

1. We looked at Title I funds and made sure our poorest schools had the resources needed to better help and support their students. 

2. We placed significant emphasis on literacy. We worked with the Mayor’s office and dozens of nonprofits to create the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success, an action plan for doubling the number of students reading on grade level by 2025. 

3. We successfully achieved year-one benchmarks in reading, and we also made sure every school had a qualified literacy coach. 

4. We doubled the number of students taking advanced courses in high school, and nearly doubled the number of students taking college entrance and industry certification exams. We saw improvements in the pass rate of students who took industry certifications which jumped from 59 percent to 61 percent. The number of students taking the exams also increased by 70 percent over the previous year. Average ACT scores increased from 18.7 to 18.9, with more students taking the exam. In addition, more students are earning a 21 or higher on the ACT. 

5. We have ensured all students in our elementary and middle schools have access to gifted and talented services by creating the Advanced Academic Resource Teacher position and ensuring all schools have at least a part-time person serving students. 

6. Two years ago, we were able to secure a 3 percent raise and a step increase for hard working employees. While we were not fully funded last year, and had to cut $15 million from our budget, this year we will be asking for a cost-of-living increase for all employees and a $1 hourly increase for our bus drivers. 

7. We secured $24 million in federal dollars to support the creation of five elementary magnet schools and to provide more social-emotional support to Pre-K students, as well as professional development for arts-related educators. 

8. We developed a strategic plan for the district with clear accountability measures and a new evaluation tool for the Director of Schools. (It has been clearly communicated as one of the most rigorous in the country if used effectively and not weaponized, but rather used to tell how we are doing. Then allowing time to shift resources and strategy to focus on the areas of need.)

9. We reduced suspensions by 1,782 infractions from 2017 to 2018. And the greatest headway has been made with African-American males, who were being suspended at disproportionate rates.  

10. We established a science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) focus at 18 middle schools and ensured that coding is offered in those schools with a reduced technology ratio and more targeted professional development for teachers. 

11. We increased funding for special education services and English Language Learner services by $7.2 million during the 2017-2018 school year. This happened while we cute $15M dollars from our budget.  

12. We established an Early College program for grades 9-12 in collaboration with Nashville State Community College to allow up to 100 students per year to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree – at the same time, at no cost to families. The previous program (Middle College) did not require all students to earn an associate degree, and it did not begin at the 9th grade level.

It is clear to me that we have been focusing on the adults recently, and I signed up to focus on our kids. As a result, I am not interested in a contract extension. So, I am formally requesting that this board evoke the section of my contract that allows us to have a mutual conversation to figure out how to best transition.

It is my hope that my time in Nashville has inspired our community to become more united and more active in supporting public education. I still believe that Nashville has all of the ingredients needed to continue to move the needle for children.

There has been much said recently about the perception of my poor treatment, and I do want to remind our community that this is not a time to point fingers or blame people. It is a time for action and it is a reminder to remember your civic duty to vote.

For those who are still having a hard time with how this looks and what it will do to our community moving forward, all I can do is remind you of Dr. King’s recollection of the power of understanding who you serve as he shared it in his sermon titled “A Drum Major’s Instinct.”  It’s the story of a man who just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, (Yes, sir) the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was 30 years old. (Amen) Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. (Yes) He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went 200 miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. (Glory to God) He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. (Amen) One of his closest friends denied him. Another of his friends turned him over to his enemies. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. (Lord help him) When he was dead he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together (Yes) have not affected the life of man on this earth (Amen) as much as that one solitary life. His name may be a familiar one. But today I can hear them talking about him. Every now and then somebody says, “He’s King of Kings.” (Yes) And again I can hear somebody saying, “He’s Lord of Lords.” Somewhere else I can hear somebody saying, “In Christ there is no East nor West.” (Yes) And then they go on and talk about, “In Him there’s no North and South, but one great Fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide world.” He didn’t have anything. (Amen) He just went around serving and doing good.

I remind us of this story today because when you commit to serving – everything just finds a way to work out. I am confident that we’ll be just fine and I pray that this school system will be just fine.

You all know I like to listen to rap songs, so I will leave you with the words of rapper/philosopher Tupac Shakur…I ain’t mad at cha’. In due time, everybody tends to get what they deserve.

At this time, Dr. Gentry, I am going to speak with media in the hallway, and with your permission, I would like to end for tonight.

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