Friday, July 10, 2009

Mayor Dean prepares to run Nashville schools

He has plan in case he's asked to take helm By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • July 10, 2009 Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is speaking more candidly about the possibility of becoming the first Southern mayor to control his city's school district. Test results to be released this month will determine whether Metro Schools will enter an unprecedented level of state control, one that would give officials the power to remove local school board members and appoint a trustee to run the district. It would take a change in the law to permanently transfer power to the mayor, a challenge Dean says he's ready for. "If we don't make it, I would hope that would be a clear call we need to make some fundamental changes," he said. "I've prepared myself. I believe the status quo doesn't work." Dean formerly would say only that he was preparing a plan in case he was asked. Now he is discussing the potential benefits of his school leadership and specific models that he is studying. For five years, Metro Schools has failed to meet academic requirements laid out in the No Child Left Behind law. As a result, the district is subject to a series of interventions that get more intense as the years go on. Cities such as New York, Cleveland, Ohio, and Boston have appointed mayors to run their districts with mixed success. Supporters of the leadership change say it streamlines school districts and clears the way for innovation; opponents say it limits parental feedback and participation and can create issues. Models for mayoral control vary from city to city. In New York the mayor had the power to appoint the chancellor and a majority of members on the Panel for Education Policy, which replaced the school board. New York state lawmakers are debating whether to renew the law this year. It is a model Dean said he favors. "I'm not going to be out there running schools," he said. "What I could do is have somebody and have their back so they can carry out reforms they feel are necessary." Dean said it would be "premature" to say whether Schools Director Jesse Register, who took the job in January, would remain on as his appointed leader. But he praised Register's communication skills and said he was capable of bold reform. Register declined to take a position on mayoral control. "The governance structure is for other people to decide," he said. "I've tried not to focus on that. I've tried to focus on improving the quality of schools in the district." Scores being appealed Register said he knew the district's preliminary scores but would not reveal them. The district is appealing some of the results — a routine process that can change the outcome. Board member Steve Glover, who represents the McGavock area, said he is optimistic that changes the district has made over the past year will have a positive impact on test scores. "I haven't seen any data that says mayoral control is the answer," he said. "The people elected us to do a job, and I'm not moving from that job." Exactly how power would transfer to Dean remains unclear. State Department of Education officials say it would take a change in state law, but House Democratic Leader Gary Odom of Nashville said he believes the mayor could be given temporary control before firmer laws are in place. Getting local support would be crucial for Dean to assume control of Metro Schools. Odom said he is open to the idea of mayoral control. Dean said running the district, something he calls "mayoral leadership," would uniquely position him to bring in resources from across the city and coordinate help from other departments. "It's easier for the mayor to raise money in the private sector, which we've shown," he said. Dean raised a reported $3 million in private funds and used some to bring teacher recruitment programs, Teach For America and the New Teacher Project, to Nashville. Thursday, Dean's office released a report from the Parthenon Group that shows the district spends more per student than other Tennessee districts, but that a disproportionate amount of that money goes toward central office salaries. The report also concluded that Metro Schools spends more on transportation and operations than other similar districts in the state. Dean said the report proves that, even if the district does meet performance standards with test scores, there's more work to be done. That includes revamping teachers' salaries to include a performance pay plan and expanding the city's after-school program. "If that occurs, then I will continue to do what I've been doing, which is to be involved in schools," he said. "We still have this huge battle to make the dramatic improvement we need to be making."

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