Monday, November 3, 2008

Will Dean take helm of Nashville schools?

Groundwork laid for Metro takeover in the event state benchmarks aren't met By Jaime Sarrio and Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • November 3, 2008 Mayor Karl Dean is preparing himself to assume control of Nashville schools should the district again fail to meet state testing benchmarks this school year. The mayor has already hired two new education advisers and said he plans to add more. He is raising millions in private money to fund pet school reform projects and plans to meet with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who assumed control of the school district there in 2002. Questions linger about what a mayoral takeover in Nashville would look like and whether Gov. Phil Bredesen — who could have the final say — would appoint Dean to take the helm. But Dean said he is getting ready for any scenario. "I am preparing myself for any eventuality and that is something that is clearly on the table," Dean said. "And if we make progress and that is not an option, I am still going to be involved in schools." Metro schools are under partial state control because the district as a whole has failed to meet testing standards for five years. State education officials this summer made drastic changes to the district's top personnel and principal lineup, and will have even more control next year if students fail to meet benchmarks again. The law gives the state the authority to wipe out the school board and appoint a new governing body. Metro is also without a schools director, and the mayor's undefined role could further complicate the search. Dean said he believes the city should hire an interim director until the district's future is clearer; state officials and the board want more permanent leadership. Either way, Dean said he wants to have a plan should the governor ask for one in August, when test scores are released. He's been watching the success of mayoral takeovers in other cities such as Washington and New York and is interested in letting the country know that Nashville wants to be a major player in school reform. "It all goes back to accountability and you can have the real political accountability in the mayor's office — all the attention is there," he said. "The board of education, whether that's the right structure for where we are now, I don't know." New law may be needed The state legislature would have to pass a law to give the mayor control over the schools, or the education commissioner — who is appointed by Bredesen — could hand over power under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Lydia Lenker, the governor's spokeswoman, said it is premature to say whether legislation will be needed. "Whether there is a need for legislation will be determined by the path Mayor Dean and Metro take to improve the school system," she said. "The governor has been focused more on raising standards at the state level. That will help all schools and systems across Tennessee, not just Metro." About a month ago, the governor invited Dean to a meeting with representatives from New York and Louisiana, where state officials are reshaping the New Orleans school district. Representatives from the Broad Foundation, an education reform nonprofit whose supporters include mayor-appointed chancellors from the D.C. and New York school districts, also attended. Lenker said the meeting was about general school improvement strategies not specific to Metro. If Dean were to take over the schools, Nashville would be the first metropolitan, or city-county, district in the country to have a mayor in charge, said Kenneth Wong, a former Vanderbilt University professor, and author of the book The Education Mayor. "That really creates a more interesting dynamic because you have a more diverse community to balance things out — racially and incomewise," Wong said. "There are real opportunities, with the right kind of governance, to turn around this system." Other cities are finding mayoral takeovers to be effective because they create more accountability, Wong said. The mayor's role looks different from city to city, but oftentimes he will appoint a school board to serve as an oversight committee, or create other boards for public representation and input. Chamber involved Public support also plays an important role, Wong said. And so far, at least one powerful group is open to the idea. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is bringing Wong in talk about his book in December. Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the chamber, said the organization hopes to start a community conversation about the next step for Metro schools if they struggle again this year. "We're looking down the line at next August, when the state may end up in full control of the school system," Schulz said. "At that point, there will be a decision to make about which form of governance this system will work best under." Schulz said the chamber wants to learn from Wong's research instead of just batting around opinions. Private businessmen were also essential in helping Dean create his Education First Fund, a pool of money that paid for recruitment services like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project as well as new staff positions. Ben Rechter, a businessman who helped Dean raise money for the Education First Fund and contributed to it himself, said fundraisers have brought in more than $3 million for the fund. "He's doing everything he knows how to do with the authority he has," Rechter said. "Beyond that, I do feel he's preparing himself to deal with whatever the next transition is, and that'll be dictated by the state." Some don't back takeover But not everyone is convinced a mayoral takeover is necessary. Bob Teague, who has one child in Metro schools and two who have graduated from the system, said No Child Left Behind creates an impossible standard of perfection, but the schools are making gains. "The NCLB standard is not the only standard for success in Metro schools," said Teague, a business and technology consultant. "A lot of progress has been made based on earlier plans and earlier leadership and earlier influences." Tammy Grissom, executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association, agrees. "I think the mayor has several responsibilities I don't know how the mayor would have time to run a school system," she said. "I think there is a separate legislative body that oversees schools for that reason." The mayor is assembling a team to help him identify the problems in Metro schools and introduce new initiatives in Nashville. Danielle Mezera, director of the Mayor's Office of Children and Youth, is Dean's top education adviser and was a major force in bringing Teach for America to Metro. Dean's also hired two new staff members — Candy Markman, who will coordinate afternoon initiatives, and Laura Hansen, a Metro schools employee who was hired to offer the mayor an insider's look at district protocol. "I am building a team to help me with my planning and to help me with the initiatives I would like to see done in the area of reform," he said. "And I am not done yet." While the mayor is building his staff, the board of education is trying to fill a critical position — director of schools. Board members held a retreat Saturday and scheduled dates next month to interview finalists for the position. Pedro Garcia quit in January after conflicts with the board. The board hired a firm to recruit candidates, but the search has been complicated by the district's uncertain future. Dean believes the district should find an interim director until it is clear whether test scores will improve. "One advantage that has been argued for mayoral involvement is that mayors tend to be able to have a little more leeway with who they select for directors," he said. School board Chairman David Fox said the board is continuing its search and acting under the assumption that the district will make gains this year. State officials advised the board to select a more permanent leader, someone who will build on the state's changes. When asked about the mayor's relationship with the board, Fox declined to comment, but said it did appear the mayor was getting things in order. "I assume he is putting himself in a position to have a plan if he is asked to step up," he said.

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