The head of Metro Nashville Public Schools says he's ready to negotiate an exit after tensions over his leadership of the school district came to a head this week, with school board members calling for his removal.
Joseph, the first African-American superintendent in the city’s history, has been the center of continuous criticism throughout his 2 1/2-year tenure. He’s been accused of overseeing a bungling human resources department that mishandled sexual harassment claims, of unethically procuring costly business contracts and creating low morale among teachers.
Now, the State Board of Education is proposing suspending Joseph’s educator license for one year. In a letter addressed to Joseph and released Tuesday, the board points out twelve instances where the district failed to report teacher misconduct over the past two years.
Joseph was not involved in any of the incidents directly, and he's not usually the person who would've reported the allegations to the state. But the State Board of Education says he's responsible as the head of the district.
Joseph Says It’s Time For Next Steps
Technically in Tennessee, a superintendent doesn’t need a teaching license to serve. But MNPS educator code requires that the director have one, according to Dawn Rutledge, a spokeswoman for the district.
And, the news came just hours before a Metro Nashville School board meeting — which was widely attended by teachers, parents and even Metro Council members — in which Joseph reiterated that he’d no longer like to extend his contract.
"It is clear to me that we have been focusing on the adults recently, and I signed up to focus on our kids," Joseph said. "So as a result I’m not interested in a contract extension."
Joseph used the meeting to respond to allegations. He claimed a local TV news station had covered his tenure unfairly and said several board members were unwilling to work with him. He also said the district doesn't have an in-house legal team, and that kept him from having expert help reporting teacher suspensions and handling human resources complaints — two issues he's been criticized for.
But Joseph said this isn’t a time to point fingers. Rather, he said it’s a time to unify to focus on issues of equity within the district.
“I’ll go ahead and leave you with the great rapper and philosopher Tupac Shakur and what I’ll say to that is ‘I ain’t mad at ya,’” said Joseph.
Joseph asked the board to come to a mutual agreement on his transition plans out of his office. There was no vote on whether to terminate his contract early. But that could come at the board’s next meeting in two weeks.
In the meantime, Joseph says he’d like to stay on and help the district go through the process of finding new leadership until his contract is slated to run out in the summer of 2020.
Community Response Still Mixed
If his contract is terminated early, Joseph says he’ll find another job. He will also leave behind a community that's divided about his record.
Teachers have pushed back against Joseph’s proposed budget in recent weeks, saying it doesn’t go far enough to raise their standard of living. Joseph has proposed a 3 percent raise, while most board members have proposed higher.
However, the Metro Council's Minority Caucus said yesterday they believe Joseph is being pushed out in part because of his race.
"This is a young man of overt intellect, professionalism, dignity, character," Councilwoman Brenda Haywood said during a press conference at the Metro Courthouse. "Somebody we can be proud of. But in the eyes of many that’s not enough. I think this has to do with overt racism."
And on Monday, Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee President Vonda McDaniel sent a letter in support of Joseph.
"Dr. Joseph inherited a school system with immense challenges and we believe he is doing his best to address them, but he can only be as effective as the resources he is given," the letter read. "He has taken concrete steps to repair the relationship between the administration and employees, and he respects the rights of employees to have a voice in the workplace."
Meanwhile, Mayor Briley said he's concerned about the discord on the board.
“We have got to come together as a community and find a way to focus more on the kids and the teachers and less on the stuff outside the school building,” said Briley.
Joseph has said he plans on helping the district continue to focus on an agenda of equity and lowering the achievement gap among students of varied race and income backgrounds. He's also told the State Board of Education that he's taking steps to prevent future allegations of teacher misconduct from slipping through the cracks.
“I regret that these matters were mishandled, and I want the State Board to know that we have taken corrective action,” said Joseph.
“My understanding is that MNPS is not the only school district in Tennessee to fail report suspensions, dismissals or resignation that would warrant consideration for license suspension […] in a district with over 11,000 employees, for the director to receive such a consequence is a bit extreme,” he added.
Joseph’s attorney, Chuck Cagle, wrote in a statement that the superintendent is considering how to respond.
“Dr. Joseph has been in contact with the State Board of Education and will vigorously defend the actions of his office against any allegations," wrote Cagle.
Joseph is entitled to a hearing before his license is suspended, which may prevent him from serving. But the issue may become moot. After a school board retreat last week, several school board members asked to create plans for Joseph’s termination.
They've asked to potentially vote on it as early as next month.