Four candidates vying for a seat on the Metro Nashville Board of Education in District 4 took to the virtual screen Oct. 21 and weighed in on their opinions. Pictured (top row, from left) are moderator Jared Felkins and candidates John Little, Pam Swoner, (bottom row, from left) Steve Chauncy and Berthena Nabaa-McKinney. LAURIE EVERETT

Four candidates vying for a seat on the Metro Nashville Board of Education in District 4 took to the virtual screen Oct. 21 and weighed in on their opinions related to their legacy role for the seat vacated by the death of Anna Shepherd, the voucher bill, charter schools, the schools budget, COVID-19 and more.

The Donelson Hermitage Neighborhood Association played host to the virtual forum, and Main Street Nashville East editor Jared Felkins served as moderator.

The public has four nominees to choose from to replace Shepherd, who died unexpectedly in June at 68. Under state law, the Metro Council’s responsibility was to fill the vacancy until voters could vote for a permanent successor at the Nov. 3 election. All four candidates are on the ballot.

The Metro Nashville Council appointed Berthena Nabaa-McKinney to fill the seat until the election.

Nabaa-McKinney is running to keep the seat. A former principal at Nashville International Academy, a faith-based school, Nabaa-McKinney currently serves as an education consultant. She formerly worked in multiple roles for Metro Nashville Schools, including classroom teaching and serving as an ACT coordinator. She previously directed early learning centers. Nabaa-McKinney also serves on the Metropolitan Action Commission, a role the Metro Council appointed her to in 2019.

Another candidate on the ballot is John Little, a political consultant for education reform. He is also a surge team director for Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, and a member of Nashville Parents Requiring Our Public Education system to Lead.

Candidate Steven Chauncy is a retired educator who previously served as executive principal of Hillwood High School. He served there for a decade and established the Academies at Hillwood, won executive principal of the year at the 2012 Academies of Nashville Awards and was named principal of the year twice.

Candidate Pam Barrett Swoner works with Centennial Park and designs sensory programing. She is on the beautification commission for District 12, helps with tornado relief and tutors children in reading, and she said she’s always involved. She worked with Shepherd for several years in Donelson Hermitage Neighborhood Association leadership.

Felkins asked the candidates’ view on Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher program, which is currently held up in the courts and was ruled unconstitutional because it deals with only Nashville and Memphis.

All four candidates were against the voucher program, but Little said he wasn’t against the program as a whole.

Nabaa-McKinney said it was held unconstitutional, and she’s not a supporter of vouchers or anything that takes funding away from schools in the district.

“I respect parents’ right to choose but not at expense of our district,” she said. “Funding right here should stay within our district, an already significant underfunded district.”

Swoner also said she also didn’t support vouchers

“…The  results are not positive and show a not positive influence on students,” Swoner said.

She said the voucher program strains funds from traditional schools.

“Why would we want to do something that’s shown not in the best interests of students?” Swoner said

Chauncey said vouchers were held unconstitutional. He said he does not want take public money away from schools and didn’t support vouchers.

“I have no conflict of interests, and voters know this, and I do not support, in any way, money for vouchers,” he said.

Little said like all the others he’s “not in support of the current voucher plan.” But, he said he didn’t want to be political, and it was about what parents think. He said students are lost between fourth and fifth grades.

“We can’t make it political, and I am a kid’s first agenda. It’s not a one-sentence topic,” he said.

Chauncy intervened and said representatives are the ones elected to make decisions, and the judicial system said they are unconstitutional.

On a separate question, Swoner said charter schools serve a place. She said charter schools were started in the 1990s to teach children who are nontraditional.

“They come first in the budget,” she said. “I find it inequitable to students in public schools,” she said. “…They are draining our resources. Charter schools are a corporation.”

Chauncy said charter schools take up “16% of school’s budget.”

“Some have merit, but generally the greatest percentage the school board denies, and then the state approves 90% of the time,” he said. “The school board has the Rook, and the state Department of Education has the Red One.”

Chauncy said while some have valid educational value, when he looked at data and research, “overall not much more improving of regular schools.”

Charter schools are organizations and corporations that use education and public money, said Chauncy. He said overall, he does not support charter schools over traditional schools.

“Parents don’t care about a brand,” said Little. “ [Charter schools] are authorized by local school boards 90% of the time. Take politics out of it.” 

Little said at the end of the day, children have opportunity to learn.

“Sometimes traditional, other times not,” he said. “In the McGavock cluster, only 54% of students are reading on grade level. I’m not bringing in politics. What do we do with those other 46% of children?”

Nabaa-McKinney said they will target the 46% of children with strategic programs.  

“I don’t think charter schools is an alternative. We can do that in our traditional public schools if we have resources in place,” she said.

She said she’s talked with families.

“We have Strive Collegiate Academy. They do good work, but collectively, students are falling through the cracks in the charter world. They are independent and maybe not have a system in place. We do need to talk to parents and inform parents when they leave the protection of MNPS and then come back in. Independent schools are taking money out of our school district. They are not significantly outperforming public schools. I don’t see it.”

She said she’s not a supporter.

Felkins then asked the candidates if they have any groups or organizations donating money to their campaigns.

Chauncey said no.

Felkins told Chauncy he found out he didn’t file a campaign finance statement by the Oct. 10 deadline.

He said he filed a special interest form with the state.

“The only money, campaign money, I put in myself,” he said.

Joan Nixon, chief deputy administrator of elections with the Metro Nashville Election Commission, said Oct. 22 she's talked with Chauncy and "he knows he's in violation."

She said he confused different documents, and his only late finance disclosure was the one due Oct. 10. She said he's already on the ballot and can't be taken off because people have been voting.

“It was not OK,” she said. “But he is resolving the issue and was going to scan and send it to me as soon as possible, and I will put it on the website.”

She said he filled out everything else, except the Oct. 10 statement. She said it alone did not disqualify him from the election.

Little said his campaign donations range from $5 to $1,600.

“They are used for campaign signs and such,” he said. “…I am glad to get physical and financial support – donations small and large – all across the board.”

Public School Allies contributed to his campaign, he said

Nabaa-McKinney said support staff in the district endorsed her at $2,500, and other campaign money came from family and friends.

“They are maxed out on my campaign,” she said.

Swoner said Metro Nashville teachers endorsed her and kicked in $6,600, but most contributions were from her friends at “$100 here and there.”

Chauncy said generally there must be conflict of interest with some donations all around.

“What is the payback?” he said.

Nabaa-McKinney said she’s not requested a payback “because they believe in me.”

“I’ve taken no donation in exchange for favors at all,” she said.

Felkins then asked the candidates what they thought about the district’s schools budget and their opinion of a referendum also on the ballot regarding a 34% property tax rate increase.

“Look at Nashville, Donelson, Hermitage and Old Hickory,” Little said. “The crisis, pandemic, has shut us down. A 32% or 37% tax raise to support schools – a $953 million budget. A lot of people are on walkers and on a fixed income.”

He said anyone older than 60 or on fixed income should be given a pass.

Nabaa-McKinney said the Metro schools budget is $934 million with $530 million that is student-based, $147 million for charter partners, $44 million fixed and $217 million for variation of things.

“I always hear we are top loaded, but only about 4% of the budget goes to the district office,” she said.

She said the majority of funding goes to students to insure the funding they need.

Swoner said if the tax increase fails, “It will cause a huge problem with our school system.”

“People 65 or older can apply for a property tax freeze,” she said. “They have to apply for it. Capital projects are on the books. If the referendum doesn’t go through, some will halt.”

Chauncy said he was “appalled that a city as prosperous as Nashville and Davidson County would impose a 34% property tax on our citizens.”

“I am a strong supporter of financial support for our schools, teachers, support staff etc., but it comes back to poor management of the total budget for our city. I’ve lived within budgets in my career. No doubt if denied, and gets caught up in court, it will call cause layoff and furloughs in schools.”

He said some parents could no longer make it with the large increase.

Nabaa-McKinney reiterated it was a 34% tax rate increase, not a property tax increase.

On the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on student learning, Nabaa-McKinney said she appreciated Director of Schools Andrienne Battle’s phase-in approach and parents given a choice.

“We were surprised 54% chose to return, and 46% are remaining virtual,” she said. “The McGavock cluster results are similar.”

She said her focus is students and respecting parents’ rights to choose, but with a robust curriculum.

“We need to make sure we are meeting students’ needs and look at opportunities as we go one to one with technology,” she said.

Swoner said Battle has done several good things such as teaching older people technology.

“There’s a lot of help available for virtual,” she said. “I would love to see all back in school, but too many people don’t respect COVID is real, refuse to wear masks and such.”

She said her grandson in the first grade was quarantined from school because someone didn’t follow the rules.

Chauncy said it’s been difficult. He said he worked with Battle while she was a principal at Antioch High School.

“We need hybrid,” he said. “Go virtual if you choose but to eliminate the opportunity to learn, in-person learning is the answer.”

He said there’s been a learning loss and to hold schools harmless over standardized testing, but to still give a test is a waste of time and money.

Little said parents have the right to choose and he kept his son at home.

He said it was impossible for the system to offer services outside of school for students with individualized education plans.

“If parents want to send their kids to school, do it,” he said. “Some choose to educate at home. … I want to humanize it. Keep it simple with great customer service. Utilize and listen with great services on both ends.”

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