Sunday, January 27, 2008
Dean wants role in replacing Garcia
But mayor has no desire to toss out school board By MICHAEL CASS • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • January 27, 2008 Mayor Karl Dean wants a say in deciding who will lead Nashville schools both short-term and for the long haul, but he's not looking to throw out the Metro school board, he said in an interview. Dean also said the school district should open more charter schools as it tries to provide good options for every student and family across the city. The district is in "corrective action" status with the state after failing to meet federal education standards for the past four years. Former Schools Director Pedro Garcia resigned Jan. 19, and Dean said the school board needs to appoint an aggressive interim director until it can hire a permanent CEO. The mayor, whose own children attend private schools, also has appointed a task force to find ways to reduce the dropout rate. He has held four town hall meetings on education since taking office in September. He even taught government and history classes one day at Maplewood High. Dean talked to The Tennessean in his office Friday. Excerpts of the interview are below. What do you think needs to be fixed first in Metro schools? Well, I think the fundamental goal for schools is that we should be in a position where we're offering choices so that all kids can go to schools where they can succeed. That's where we start. Obviously there's an opportunity now to select a new director of schools, which is a very important decision. I regard it as just that: an opportunity, a chance to make a positive difference in the future. I want to be very involved with that. Do you want more say in the schools than the mayor has officially had under the (Metro) charter over the years? I don't know if I'd say "more say." Basically, all around this country, particularly in urban school districts, there has been a trend for more mayoral involvement with public education. Fundamentally, that was one of the reasons I ran for mayor. I do believe that for this city to continue to be the great city it is, and to be the city in the future that we want it to be, we've got to succeed in the area of public education. The mayor has a role there. No. 1, the mayor's fundamental obligation is the welfare of this city. And I am convinced, be it for public safety reasons, be it for economic development reasons, for reasons just about who we are and what our values are, having a good public school system is critical to Nashville. Thus far, the Board of Education and the administration have been very receptive to my involvement. Every time I've wanted to do something, every time I've wanted to meet, they have been more than gracious. They have, in fact, been encouraging my involvement. We have a legal structure that's created by the charter, created by state law. I'm happy to work within that structure. But part of that is allowing a more interactive relationship between the mayor and the schools, and we're getting there. I want to be involved to the utmost in the process of hiring a new director of schools and during this transition period. It's a key appointment in this city, a key hire that we need to do right, and the mayor, I think, has a role in it. I've heard that you met with board members individually this week to — I met with every board member (Thursday), individually. Did you ask them for an opportunity to let you name the interim director? No, I asked for the opportunity and extended my offer to help them do that. I think one of the things that happens is, people view this issue as one or the other, but it's really together. There's no way we do what we need to do in education if it's just the mayor or if it's just the Board of Education or if it's just the (Metro) Council. What I think is so exciting about Nashville right now is that everybody wants to be involved. There may be disagreements about educational philosophies, about what the right answer is to any particular given issue, and you work your way through those. But everybody knows that schools are the issue for this community. I thought it was important, given the fact that there is a change in leadership occurring at the head of the administration, it was important for me to talk to (board members) about the status of the schools, but also to say I want to work with them to select an interim director and a permanent director. Do you have anyone in mind for either of those positions? No. For the interim position, Chris Henson (Metro schools' chief financial officer and, for the moment, interim director) is an excellent person, very good at what he does. But we also need to move forward during this time period. The search for a permanent director, I'm not sure how that evolves, but that could take anywhere from three months to a year. We are at a time when the state is obviously looking carefully at our schools, and we just have the need to keep moving forward, and we can't let the status quo stay where it is for a year. You need to bring somebody in who, No. 1, is somebody who cares about public education; No. 2, is a strong administrator, somebody who has a passion about this city and the future of this city and somebody who understands this city. Do you feel like the chief financial officer's job is a big enough job as it is, and that Chris Henson doesn't need to be trying to do two major jobs at one time? Chris has got an enormous job. We're going into the budget time. The schools are working right now with the (Metro Nashville Education Association, the teachers union) on incentive pay issues; they've got to negotiate an agreement on that. You've got all the issues related to working with the state. There's just a lot of things going on. But at the same time, we've got to keep moving forward. That's why I think there's a need to have a transition director, somebody there in the interim. What do you think of (Board of Education member) David Fox and (Metro Councilman) Sean McGuire calling for you to have the power to appoint a new school board? Have you been pushing for that? Have you talked to either of them about that? No. I was probably as surprised as anyone. You know, that is not what I'm doing. I think our board has performed much better than they've been given credit for. I like each and every one of them. They bring a great diversity of outlooks and views to the issues, which is probably, I mean, I would assume that's why we have an elected board. And I think the board is extremely conscientious. That being said, I certainly think this is part of what's going on right now. David Fox and Sean McGuire are talking about schools because, like me, they want to see improvement. Like me, they think it's the fundamental issue facing this community. They're adding to the public discussion. That's not the route I'm taking. I want to work with this school board. I've been working with this board. And I think they're on the same page as me in terms of wanting to work together. There have been several major cities where mayors have, in one way or another, taken over the schools. There's books about it. And it would take some changes beyond the city. And what David's talking about would require state legislation at the minimum — and possibly a charter amendment. And I'm looking forward to moving forward on these issues next week. We've got to keep going. Are you worried about more schools landing on the state's watch list after this school year ends? That may not be the right term. Corrective action? Yeah, I'm worried about it, but this is where increased mayoral involvement is just a natural thing. Under No Child Left Behind and under some of the initiatives and reforms Gov. (Phil) Bredesen is undertaking, we are in a period where there is increased accountability. Those standards, they're not going to get easier. Because of that increased accountability for the schools, it is natural for the mayor to play a bigger role. But clearly we want to get our schools in a position where they're not on those lists. What are the major points of difference in different constituencies' approaches that you need to try to bridge? You said everybody wants to get to the same place, but it's a matter of how we get there. Nashville is such a great city. We've got so much going on. Education is the area we've got to get right. And so my job is to keep it focused on that. This isn't a time to be timid. This is a time for us to seize the day and to make our schools better. In terms of the next permanent director, what kind of leader does the district need? What needs to be different from what we've had in the past? The challenges we face right now are different than when Dr. Garcia was hired. That was 6 ½ years ago. The corrective action issue is different. We need to make sure we define what we're looking for and go about it together. I am certainly open to looking at nontraditional directors. The average tenure of an urban director now is about 2 ½ years. That tells me, No. 1, it's an incredibly tough job, and No. 2, maybe just looking in the same pool all the time is not necessarily what we ought to be doing. But that's a subject that I think involves other people's input than just my own. But we obviously want somebody who's a leader, who's a good administrator, somebody who has a vision of educational excellence, who can bring people together. But you could see looking into the business community or somewhere other than people who have always come up through the school system ranks? I think you've just got to be open. And looking outside the traditional applicants might be a useful thing to do. You talked in the campaign about encouraging the school board to be open to charter school proposals. Is that something you've focused on during these first few months? I've met with folks about charter schools. I still have that position. That's part of the mix, that we've got to be open to new ideas, we've got to be open and supportive of anyone who's trying to make more educational opportunities for kids. I've detected somewhat of a public perception that the attitude is changing, but we are behind other cities in what we offer in terms of charter schools, and we've got to do better there. And I think there's a lot of folks out there with pent-up energy and desire to come in with creative proposals, and we ought to be encouraging that. You talked also in the campaign about retaining and recruiting high-quality teachers, providing incentives. Have you made any headway on that? Have you talked specifically to the board or the administration? One of the things I've learned about is the need to offer more career development opportunities for teachers, particularly in math and science; to offer mentors. I've met with MNEA, and they've expressed interest in that. (On) the incentive pay issue, the state is asking us, is telling us that we should be making incentive payments to teachers who work with the most at-risk students. And I fully support that. The board is negotiating right now with MNEA about how that gets done, but that needs to get done. Is there anything else you'd like to add? Anything else people should expect in the next few months? There is change occurring, but it's not a crisis. This is just a time of great opportunity. And so I really do look forward to the next few months because it is an opportunity for us to make some changes, to set a direction that will move us to having the school system our kids deserve.
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