County school board works on building better relations at retreat


County school board works on building better relations at retreat

An all-day Williamson County school board retreat held Saturday in Nashville turned out to be an exercise in team building for the nine board members in attendance.

An all-day Williamson County school board retreat held Saturday in Nashville turned out to be an exercise in team building for the nine board members in attendance.

Board members Dan Cash, chairman P.J. Mezera, Paul Bartholomew, Bobby Hullett, Candace Emerson, Rick Wimberly, Beth Burgos, Mark Gregory and Susan Curlee went to the retreat, as did School Superintendent Mike Looney. It was held at JA BizTown in the 100 Oaks area. The annual board retreat is included in the district’s budget.

Ken Peterson, Gary Anderson and Jay Galbreath were absent.

With help from Kate Monaghan, a Center for Nonprofit Management consultant who helps facilitate relationships in nonprofit organizations, the attending board representatives appeared to move beyond communication hurdles and clear the air over the divisiveness of the board since the August election of six new members.

Hullett described the rifts in board relationships created during the election season and widened in the two months the new board has worked together.

“‘Us’ and ‘we’ used to mean the 12 members of the board. ‘We’ now refers to a subset of the whole. That’s a problem.”

The friction stems primarily from questions about ties between the new board members and Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political group that opposes Common Core and advocates for charter schools.

Since the new representatives were sworn in, communication among the Williamson board has largely not been face-to-face, taking place instead mainly through a barrage of heated email exchanges – or not at all, which the board also discussed at Saturday’s retreat.

Hullett cited repeated attempts by incumbent board members including himself to meet with new members since their election, which were ignored, as well as a desire to move past the contentiousness of the first few board meetings.

“Do I expect the next board meeting to be the same?” he said. “Absolutely not. They can’t be. I want to get past this today.”

Burgos said that some of the community’s negative perception of the new board members and their motives made those new to the board wary of meeting with incumbents.

“The reason why is we still have two teams, to a degree,” she said. “Williamson Strong launched with your blessing. Very quickly they chose sides and began to define us in a way that isn’t true. You expect all those human emotions are going to go away. It was disingenuous, and we need to heal and recover.”

Williamson Strong is a grassroots parent organization that supports the school system and has expressed concerns about the new board members.

The board appeared to agree that “noise” from the public should not interfere with board relations and business. Looney also said he and Burgos plan to meet with individuals – he said PTO parents, as an example – in the community to help open the lines of communication.

The superintendent also implored the board to redirect its focus to kids, who have been overshadowed in recent months by poor board relationships and issues unrelated to students.

“All of this has nothing to do with student learning,” Looney said. “We’ve got to turn the conversation back on the kids.”

Looney also said the entire board has to “carry on” regardless of “antagonists” with ill intentions for the school system.

Two items on the retreat agenda were pushed for discussion at a later time; one is the WCS strategic plan, which outlines the district’s goals in regards to student programs, teacher quality, technology, planning and zoning, and finance. The second is the district’s code of ethics, a “gentleman’s” agreement that the board adopts and signs each October.

The board will decide at its Nov. 13 work session whether to take up the two matters at it’s December board work session or schedule another weekend retreat.

Jessica Pace covers Williamson County, Williamson County Schools and the Town of Nolensville for Home Page Media Group. Contact her at jess@brentwoodhomepage.com or follow her on Twitter @Jess_NHP.

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