Amid growing unease of treatment of Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph and claims of racism on the school board, Mayor David Briley gave the following speech at Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School:
“Good morning. I’ve just toured Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School, which is a powerful success story.
“Napier used to be one of Metro’s most challenged schools. It was on the state’s priority schools list.
“But thanks to a determined principal and community, that is no longer the story here. Napier has changed the narrative. And progress like Napier’s is happening in many schools across the district.
“And yet we still have a huge issue hurting too many of our schools and holding our city back. That issue is racial inequality, and a related equity gap in Nashville’s schools.
“But we haven’t been talking about our challenges the way we should be. So it’s time for all of us to have the courage to speak some hard truths about where we are and where we need to go.
“The great majority of our third-graders cannot read on grade level. Far too many of our high school students are not prepared for post-secondary education. In too many neighborhoods, our teachers are under-supported. And many of our parents and their children are trapped in struggling schools.
“That’s on us. That’s on me, on the school board, on the business community, on everyone who calls our city home.
“As a community, we haven’t been living up to our values. There is no doubt that Nashvillians want education to be the number one priority of this city, and our budget (with more than 40 cents of every dollar going to schools) says that it is.
“And yet we’re not getting the results we need. We are failing too many of our children and families, especially people of color.
“A lot of that comes down to leadership. Leaders, whether they’re elected or appointed, have to lead. When I took office around this time last year, I had to stabilize the city’s budget pretty quickly, and that required some hard choices – choices that not everyone agreed with but that were in the best interest of the city.
“Leadership also means working to build consensus, if not unanimous approval. And it means being willing to accept when you’ve been on the losing side, and being willing to move on, so that all sides can move forward together for the sake of bigger goals.
“We haven’t seen enough of that from our elected school board members. Instead, this is a fractured group that too often deliberates in secret. It can be quicker to tweet and post to Facebook than lead. And it cannot consistently honor its policy that requires, requires, all board members to get behind any majority decision they make.
“There’s no harder job in Nashville than the schools director. And no one’s going to do that job perfectly.
“I may be out on a limb here, but I think Dr. Joseph, too, would say with the benefit of hindsight that he would have done a few things differently.
“But we also need to praise Dr. Joseph for challenging the city to make equity in our schools a priority. That focus is going to be one of the keys to Nashville’s success.
“It’s also true that sometimes the resources haven’t matched up to Dr. Joseph’s vision. Dr. Joseph is right that we need to stop criminalizing students who act out in the classroom. But we also need to make sure teachers have the support they need to manage classrooms so they can keep the teaching and learning on track.
“Dr. Joseph also is right to prioritize social-emotional learning and to ensure that funding is reaching the most needy schools and children. And he has made literacy a focus since Day 1.
“Going all the way back to when I enrolled in Metro Schools as a first-grader in 1971, we have not been able to reach a common understanding on race, and we continue to struggle with that issue.
“Let me be clear: I am not calling anyone a racist. And I know that most people in leadership have good intentions and good hearts.
“But you can have a good heart and still fail to see the heart of the matter.
“Some of our school board members have not acknowledged why their actions are seen through a racial lens. They’ve failed to acknowledge the legacy of racism and the legacy of systemic racism in Nashville, the legacy of inequality that this city is still trying to overcome today.
“There’s a history here that we all need to understand. We can’t ignore it.
“So what are we going to do? Or you might ask, what am I, as mayor, as the city’s elected leader, going to do?
“State law and the Metro Charter put some significant limitations on the mayor when it comes to education. I can recommend how much money the district should get, but I can’t say how it should be spent.
“Despite these limitations, I will use all of my legal authority to influence the direction of the school board. But I can use my voice and my ability to bring people together. And I assure you that I am going to be very, very involved in how our school district operates.
“I have informed Dr. Sharon Gentry, the chair of the school board, that my administration must and will be involved moving forward in operations, finance and human resources, and certainly in how the board searches for a new schools director—first an interim director, and then a more permanent leader.
“And there will be some strings attached to any new funding the district receives. The school board will have to follow open meetings laws and follow its own rules, and stop name-calling and fueling social media disputes.
“The expectation will be growth, not grandstanding.
“The school board is going to have to get its house in order, because when it is dysfunctional, it affects an entire city.
“I’ve already gotten involved in working to help our priority schools improve, because the children in those schools don’t have any time to waste. Their future depends on quality schools. So I’ve assembled a group of teachers, administrators, advocates and parents to study the issues, look at the data and come up with some recommendations.
“Dr. Watechia Lawless, the principal here at Napier, is a member of that group. Dr. Lawless has shown how to be an effective leader and turn around a school. And she’s done that by bringing the community together and increasing community investment.
“Dr. Lawless, thank you for your work and for hosting us here today.
“You’ll hear more from me in the coming weeks about my plans to help the school board and the district so they can achieve what we all want: schools that help all of Nashville’s children succeed. The Napier story can be repeated. Every school can deliver on the promise of a good education.
“I know it can happen. I know what Nashville is capable of. I know we’re ready to do right by our kids. And I plan to use my position and my influence and this office to keep charting a path forward for our schools.
“Every child in Nashville, every single child, deserves a school board with his or her best interests in mind; teachers who are supported and paid what they deserve; evidence-based teaching and social-emotional support; and a culture of trust and empowerment.
“And when our hard-working teachers, principals, support staff and central office staff come to work every day because they believe in helping our children succeed, they deserve a strong, unified school board as well.
“I believe this is the school board’s last chance to be a positive change agent that will make a difference in our children’s lives—their last chance to get it right. The school board in the next few weeks will have an opportunity to answer this call to leadership. They’ll have a chance to find a way to do right by our children, our community and our city’s future by being a positive force for good.
“The city of Nashville demands more from this board.