Don’t Shoot the Messenger

I know MNPS board member Will Pinkston and I’m always amused by the useless attacks leveled against him by those who seem determined to advance their own self-interest despite the detriment to public education.

Here’s what we’ve always known about the soon-to-be-former Nashville School Board member, even before he was elected in 2012. First: He takes principled stands on the issues, no matter whose ox gets gored. Second: He doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and because of that he sometimes comes off like a jerk. Third: He always puts students and public schools first.

Pinkston’s decision to quit the school board initially raised eyebrows. But after looking at his reasoning — the board, in its current configuration, is “impossibly inept” amid “racially motivated” decisions — who would want to stay? Pinkston just stated the obvious at a time when many Nashvillians sat on the sidelines or were too polite to chime in.

Truth is: While some might like to believe our city is post-racial in 2019, we’re not. The first African-American school superintendent in our city’s history inherited a mess from the previous superintendent. Then, he was subjected to an unprecedented double-standard by a local TV station coordinating with ill-intentioned school board members who were at the same time calling for masked protests of black administrators, harkening back to a darker time in history.

Here’s what’s real: Nobody wins in this situation. There are only degrees of losing.

Our city has lost a dynamic superintendent who dared to push for equity for all students in our majority-minority schools.  

Everyone wants equity until it is time to start allocating resources equitably. Everyone wants equity until there is a sense of loss which causes a fear of losing ground even when there is no data to substantiate it. A sect of the city painted Dr. Joseph as a big, black man playing Robin Hood – taking from the rich and giving to the poor. The fear of those communities losing something fueled the push to get rid of the man leading the charge for equity.

Nationally, urban school systems whose boards exhibit a commitment to educational equity and success in raising academic achievement are recognized and celebrated. Rather than supporting our former superintendent’s work to advance educational access and equity in MNPS, some of our school board members spent all their time, energy and effort to penalize, criminalize and demoralize him for doing the work he was hired to do.

Our school board has also lost a voice who consistently fought for low-income students and students of color (including young New Americans in his South Nashville district), early childhood education, and adequate school funding. And, now, we’re no closer to fixing the problems.

So where do we go from here?

We need to honestly recognize what happened here. The community should come to terms with the systemic racism that has debased our current school board and furthermore acknowledge the impact that its had on the school system over the last 60 years. We have to face the hard truths. The MNPS board needs to reorganize and recommit to prioritizing the student achievement of its diverse group of 86,000 students who attend MNPS.

We need excellence in governance. It will be critical that our next superintendent is allowed do his or her job — without board members personalizing decisions made in the best interest of the students the district serves, or constantly trying to micro-manage or second-guess every incremental decision.

From there, the board and the community needs to address how Metro Nashville Public Schools is a chronically underfunded school system. Funding problems weren’t created overnight, nor will they be solved overnight. But we need to come to grips with the fact that Nashville’s per-pupil funding ranks too low when compared with other urban school systems in the U.S.

Will Pinkston was one of the board’s most outspoken voices in calling attention to funding inequities that undermine resources in the classroom and suppress compensation for employees who are increasingly being priced out of the so-called “It City.”

Before his resignation, he was angling for a city-wide conversation with the mayor, Metro Council members and others about how to engineer a multi-year solution to the school system’s funding woes. That work still needs to happen, but the board needs to first shed its distractions — and stop being constantly tempted to “major in the minors,” as a Tennessean columnist recently noted.

Like the rest of Nashville, I’m saddened to see our school board hit an all-time low. But as the salvage operation gets underway, maybe the events of recent weeks can inform and better equip Nashvillians to tackle issues of race and minority status in our city and the role that adequate school funding must play in providing an equitable education to all public-school students.

Finally: Some folks might not like what Will Pinkston had to say, or how he said it. But let’s face it: He was actually right.

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