Unhappy Principals, A Divided School Board — MNPS Director Shawn Joseph Responds To The Tension | Nashville Public Radio

Unhappy Principals, A Divided School Board — MNPS Director Shawn Joseph Responds To The Tension

Mar 5, 2019


Nashville school board members are starting to consider whether to extend Director Shawn Joseph's contract, which runs out in the summer of 2020.

Joseph's future in the city is uncertain. He's been accused of favoritism, mishandling sexual harassment cases, and ignoring employee concerns. And in a recent evaluation, his critics on the board gave him an "unsatisfactory" rating in every category.

But Joseph says the root of this tension stems from resistance to his efforts to shake up the district. 

"I don’t apologize for happening to know good practices from districts that have done much better than Metro Nashville Public Schools, and utilizing that expertise to help us move at a fast rate," says Joseph. 

The first African-American director of public schools

Many of Joseph’s supporters question whether race plays a role in the mounting criticism against him — like when school board member Jill Speering complained about the director using a small clip of a rap song during a meeting.

And more recently when Speering told teachers to protest Joseph and wear masks if they feared retribution — a suggestion another board member — Christianne Buggs — likened to KKK tactics.

"I’m not sure if Mrs. Speering internally made the connection between the masked protest she made today and those of yesteryears hailed by the Ku Klux Klan, but I did," said Buggs. 

Joseph says Speering's actions may not have been intentional. But, he says, she could have been more sensitive about the use of masks. 

"We are in a country and we are in a state where there had been a history of intimidation tactics on people of color. Though the act may have been not intentionally racially motivated, the fact is lots of people were angry and enraged about it," said Joseph.

Some even make parallels between Joseph and former superintendent Pedro Garcia, who is Hispanic. Before he resigned in 2008, Garcia wrote in a series of memos that he felt race was a factor in his being pushed out. 

Joseph says he doesn't point to any specific instance of discrimination, but he says race can't necessarily be ignored. As an African-American man, he says, his experience informs his decisions throughout the district.

"All leadership is based upon context, so the fact that I am a young African-American in a leadership role situates a context for how I do my work," says Joseph.

Not about race, but about performance 

Many board members, principals and teachers, some of whom are black, say criticism of Joseph has to do with his performance, not his race. 

"This was never about race. It is not about race. Race had never been brought into the equation. This movement has been manifested by Dr. Joseph. This is the climate that has been created," said school board member Fran Bush to NewsChannel 5 in February.

"I'm an African-American female. I understand racism, but this has to do with our schools, our teachers, our students."

Another issue that often comes up at school board meetings is whether Joseph's human resources department mishandled a series of sexual harassment complaints. A former MNPS principal, Samuel Braden, was eventually placed on administrative leave after being accussed by several employees of sexual misconduct.

"Yea, so there are complex situations. The human resources report that was just submitted found that our human resources department did not have any egregious errors in how they investigated and ultimately came to a determination," said Joseph.

"I wouldn’t want anybody to be harassed in this district. We have strong policies in place, so that’s the good news."  

The human resources report that was released pointed out some areas for improvement, including adding "consistency to the investigative process." But later, the report concludes "at no time during our review of policies and procedures [...] did we identify any intentionally negative or problematic conduct by employees."

Though, it did recommend the executive director of the human resources department be fired or receive additional training. 

Additionally, several board members also allege Joseph hired friends from other districts, has too many personal expenditures, and gave a costly contract to a businesses he had previously worked with — possibly in violation of state law.

But, Joseph says those criticisms are unfair.

"I’m the superintendent. I’m not an attorney. I don’t sign those documents or those contracts in any way, shape or form," said Joseph. "What I would say, in general, if you compared my budgets and what I’ve spent on consultants and others to previous administrations it’d be very clear that I spend much less."

A recent Metro audit looked into 15 allegations made against Joseph and senior officials, including that they circumvented purchasing rules and federal regulations and that they were receiving kickbacks from vendors. But auditors found only one of the claims could be substantiated: that the district overspent on a vendor contract by about $50,000.

They blamed factors such as a lack of understanding of policies and laws, differences of opinion and unreliable methods for tracking expenditures for the allegations.

City and district officials have sparred over whether the audit was thorough enough.

Accomplishments and next steps 

Joseph says he cut $15 million dollars from district spending. He also lists accomplishments like paying for all students’ AP exams, and giving teachers a 3 percent raise.

He says he also put more money into city’s poorest schools. While some critics said that set back wealthier schools, Joseph says only a handful saw a loss in funding.  

"Per pupil, they get more money than they’ve ever gotten before in the history of this district," said Joseph. 

Now that his contract is coming up for renewal, Joseph says he would like to stay in Nashville.

"I love Nashville, I love the work we’re doing. My children are in this school district. The work we’ve done is not done. So if the board believes we are on the right course, they should extend it," he said.

"If they don’t, they should communicate that with me and I’ll have an opportunity to decide what next steps are."

Joseph says he feels like he and his team are tackling issues that go back generations in Nashville. And, that’s hard work.