By Harpeth High School Teacher BILL KING
An Open Letter to the Cheatham County Board of Education:
A little over two years ago I sat among a sparse audience of three or four interested citizens to witness Dr. Tim Webb’s interview to become Cheatham County’s director of schools. At one point in the interview, then Board member Greg Horton asked whether or not Dr. Webb would have the guts to dismiss employees who were underperforming. Dr. Webb replied that he did possess that wherewithal but followed that admission with an important qualifier. Before dismissing underperforming employees, he said that he would first do all he could to help those employees to become more effective. While some might consider that a stock response, I took it seriously. It denoted a man who valued and understood the difficult job that teaching has become and that dismissals would not occur capriciously.
Unfortunately, the final two weeks of Dr. Webb’s tenure as director belied that promise. His “final days” directives of demotion, displacement, and termination of numerous employees were sudden and shocking, especially to those who had been assured by him more than once that they were doing a good job. There was no attempt at remediation for the majority of those employees. Furthermore, several of those demoted administrators and most of the retained administrators did not even have a state mandated formal evaluation completed during the school year. This dereliction occurred during the first year of the Race to the Top agenda when employee evaluations were mandated and highlighted as a central statewide focus for school reform. Indeed, Dr. Webb, himself, had served on the committee that finalized the evaluation framework. When, however, Dr. Webb failed to complete his evaluation responsibilities as director, the Board of Education remained silent.
We are currently experiencing a teacher talent drain in our school system. This year, Metro Nashville will pay its beginning teachers $40,000. According to our current salary schedule, it could take a beginning Cheatham County teacher ten years to reach $40,000; however, this year’s voluntary teacher departures seem to be primarily motivated, not by money, but by a perceived lack of professional respect. In the past, it has certainly not been the money that kept teachers in place in Cheatham County. For years, Cheatham County teachers have been the lowest paid of all surrounding counties. What kept us here was the quality of life. We thrived in small communities where we, by and large, knew and respected our students and administrators, and, by and large, felt respected in return. Year after year, we worked with fewer and fewer resources and collectively never demanded more money for ourselves. But when teachers lose quality of life and professional respect due to the insecurities caused by unwarranted threats of termination, demotions, or transfers and are denied vital resources to teach effectively, they figure they may as well chase the money.
Still, at this late date, the majority on this Board, even with two new members, seems to go out of its way to ignore the misdeeds of our former director. While several principals and teachers must now and in the future publicly and professionally bear the brunt of Dr. Webb’s final judgments and his failure to complete his observation requirements, no statement of his missteps from the current Board seems forthcoming. And because we know that Dr. Webb did not act alone when, on his way out the door, he scorched the school landscape with questionable demotions, transfers, and dismissals, many among the current force of Cheatham County teachers and administrators wonder if next spring this Board will allow another round of the same. If personnel shifts of this magnitude become an annual event, you can expect an annual hemorrhaging of major teacher talent as well. Your teachers are not pawns on a chess board; they are human beings. If they are not respected as such, they will seek that respect elsewhere.