Shelby County School Board Commissioner Chris Caldwell (District 1 - initially appointed by the County Commission, elected in August, defeated Dr. Freda Williams and Dr. Noel Hutchinson) sat through the same ASD meeting I did on Monday night.
His takeaway was quite different from mine.
Let's back up. I had some difficulty listening to the Special Call School Board meeting last night because my radio kept cutting out. But the point of last night's Board meeting was to get through a number of the TPC recommendations. Some of the recommendations are related to the district's relationship with the ASD - specifically, that the district should cooperate with the ASD and the operators that it brings in.
Several School Board Commissioners had questions about the ASD. They're clearly getting some pushback on the ASD in their communities. As they should.
Superintendent Kriner Cash knows that he has to pick his battles, and he has decided that the ASD will not be his battle. He described the ASD as giving "help" that the district needs with respect to these bottom 5% schools. Dr. Rod Richmond, one of Dr. Cash's top deputies, assured the Board that the two teams (district and ASD) are working very well together. The district statements about the ASD were really artfully done.
And I get it. The state has made its decision. Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has the full support of Governor Haslam and the super-majority Republican legislature. And we know that the state is willing to play hardball. Really ugly hardball. Withholding funding hardball. Since MCS has so many of the bottom 5% schools, it just has no bargaining power. And ASD Supt. Chris Barbic is right - Tennessee is #46 or #47 nationally, so our bottom 5% schools are among the worst-performing schools in the country.
All of that said, my objections to the ASD have to do with their methods and how they operate. And based on what I've seen, they are operators.
Commissioner Chris Caldwell must have felt uncomfortable at the ASD meeting on Monday. At last night's Board meeting, he appreciated Dr. Cash's comments and suggested that MCS district staff attend the ASD meetings to give the same explanation - that the ASD will be a help, etc.
I think that what Commissioner Caldwell misunderstood is that the communities targeted by the ASD do not object to increased resources being applied in favor of their neighborhood schools. This is what they've been asking for, for years. They clearly object to the turnaround model - where the entire staff of the school, regardless of their individual results, is displaced. The communities are objecting to the disruption of their children's education, in communities where stability is difficult to find and schools are among the only places that consistently offer it.
Perhaps Commissioner Caldwell is not aware of the sizable PR budget that the ASD is able to utilize - sizable enough that in addition to all of the regular PR duties, a staff member is apparently tasked with monitoring the comments section of media websites. If the ASD needs assistance, it can afford its own consultants.
However, under no circumstances should the very limited resources of the public school district be expended on helping the ASD "sell" its product. If the ASD is having trouble communicating its vision, it should not be the responsibility of the district to help clarify. The district is cooperating. That is more than enough. District staff is already stretched incredibly thin between doing their regular jobs and managing the merger. The ASD can afford its PR plan, and is not in need of any additional resources from MCS.
If there is confusion, it is up to the ASD to clarify. If there is unhappiness, it's up to the ASD to explain why they're going to do it anyway. If there's anger, then it's up to the ASD to understand that when you force an unproven, disruptive product on people that don't want it, that's not real "school choice".
Please Commissioner Caldwell, let the ASD explain itself with its own people and using its own resources.