On the record with Metro Nashville Public Schools board candidates

Candidates discuss COVID closings, budget issues and divisive partisan politics

By: - July 28, 2022 1:49 pm
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Davidson County Board of Education (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Davidson County is one of 59 Tennessee counties offering partisan school board elections for the first time after the legislature passed a bill to allow them during a 2021 special session. 

As in other large counties, including Williamson and Knox, opposing candidates are in many races facing off over divisions created by school districts’ management of education in the COVID era.

Metro Nashville Public Schools was one of several school districts in the state that conducted virtual schooling and required masks for all staff and students indoors and on MNPS buses despite attempts by state officials to prohibit the mask mandates. Schools closed after March 2020, early in the pandemic, and remained closed  for the remainder of the school year.

At the beginning of 2021, Lee sought to reopen schools and criticized education leaders in Memphis and Nashville for keeping them  closed for the spring semester due to COVID-19 case surges. Somes schools also suffered staffing shortages after teachers contracted COVID-19 or quarantined due to contact with the virus.

A parent-led coalition formed and pushed for schools to reopen sooner with support from school board member Fran Bush.  Administrators ended the mask requirement after March 11, at the start of spring break, and MNPS returned to fully in-person classes for the 2021-2022 school year.

School board seats in even-numbered districts are up for re-election, and feature a mix of incumbents and newcomers. Several of the latter say they were motivated to run out of concern MNPS’s mask requirements and remote-learning during the pandemic negatively impacted children. 

The Tennessee Lookout contacted  candidates from each of the four districts for their takes on how school board races now reflect the many challenges arising from the pandemic and navigating partisan school board elections. Most candidates responded; a few did not and are noted in the story.

District 2: Incumbent Rachael Anne Elrod (Democrat) faces Todd Pembroke (Republican) and Edward Arnold (Independent).

Rachael Anne Elrod

Davidson County school board candidate
Rachael Anne Elrod with her family. (Photo: submitted)

Elrod was elected to the board in 2018 and has served as the vice chair  since 2020.  She is a former elementary school teacher and works as a career development professional. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Elrod: Being in the first partisan school board race, we’re going to see these races be more expensive, longer, and overtly political, all without any benefit to students. For me, this race has been disappointing because my opponent’s platform is built on partisan rhetoric which is anti-mask, arming teachers, anti-Critical Race Theory, banning books that are “divisive” and cutting wrap-around services like supplemental groceries, clothing, dental services and English language courses for families. Our students need more tools to succeed and leaders that understand that. 

This race is about one candidate that understands Metro Schools– what it’s like to be in a classroom and has proven that she can work toward solutions even in the most difficult of circumstances– and another candidate that thinks solutions are found in political rhetoric and that kids are just a (return of investment).

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections? 

Elrod: We’re seeing the national Trump rhetoric and messaging: School leaders and public education are the enemy. There’s also a disregard for diversity and the multi-faceted needs of our students and families. This is especially concerning in District 2, which has one of the most diverse populations within the school system and includes one of the most diverse high schools in the state. Also, we’re getting the personal and nasty politics that we’ve seen on the national level, including behavior and comments that we wouldn’t allow from students in our schools. As I have always done during my time on the school board, I’m focusing on listening to parents and teachers, talking about the important issues, and finding solutions.

Q: As an incumbent, what have been your biggest challenges?

Elrod: I led on the school board during an extraordinary time. It is difficult to convey the work that’s done during a normal school board tenure, so it’s near impossible during an unprecedented tenure. We worked hard over the past three years to navigate COVID and natural disasters while listening to experts, teachers and staff, and parents. My opponent does not understand the basic needs of Nashville’s schools and the challenges our teachers and students face. He hasn’t even cared enough about MNPS to vote in a school board race in at least 14 years. MNPS is a minority-majority, urban school district that is historically underfunded and includes higher percentages of economically disadvantaged, english language learner and student with disability populations than any surrounding district. Metro Schools are complex, but my opponent tries to oversimplify things to “just reading, writing, and arithmetic,” which ignores some of the biggest challenges the school system and families face. 

Editor’s note: MNPS schools are 39.4% Black, 30.72% Hispanic or Latino, 25.1% white and 3.96% Asian. About 21.06% of MNPS students are enrolled in english-learning classes. 

A magnet on Todd Pembroke's car at a June Republican event in Brentwood. (Photo: Holly McCall)
A magnet on Todd Pembroke’s car at a June Republican event in Brentwood. (Photo: Holly McCall)

Todd Pembroke

Pembroke served in the national guard and is the owner of an insurance company. He has been endorsed by the conservative group, Moms for Liberty, due to his campaign against mask mandates and stance against critical race theory and gender ideology being taught in schools. In his campaign, Pembroke refers to himself as “No Woke.”

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Pembroke: This school board race is of the utmost importance as MNPS has been failing our kids, parents & teachers. The opposition party has injected $70,000 directly into the school board race in an attempt to protect their interests. Four more years of the status quo will be detrimental – it’s time for a change! 

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections? 

Pembroke: The past several years has disclosed numerous negative impacts by the current school board including: frivolous no-big contracts & budget spending, contentious and unprofessional communication with concerned parents, and a complete lack of accountability for their bad decisions. Parents are “waking up” and getting involved in the public school system again which I highly encourage.

Q: Why are you against allowing Critical Race Theory and gender topics in school curriculums?

Pembroke: MNPS needs to return its focus to core curriculum – the extremely low stats speak for themselves. Anything controversial and divisive has no place in public schools – return that responsibility to the parents and let them decide if and how to discuss those topics. Furthermore, young innocent minds should not bear the burden of such extreme and heavy topics.

Editor’s note: Critical Race Theory is not taught in K-12 classrooms. 

Edward Arnold 

Arnold, a retired state employee, taught for 20 years and taught adult literacy at MNPS schools. He is currently a doctoral student at Tennessee State University. 

Arnold ran for school board District in 2014 and 2018 and has said he became involved in politics after he was forced to remove his son from preschool due to fees.

In 2016, Arnold was involved in a civil action suit against then-commissioner of the state Department of General Services, Bob Oglesby, after a former state employee complained he was not paid for working on a state holiday before he was terminated. The general sessions and circuit courts granted the DGS’s motion to dismiss based on sovereign immunity. The case is scheduled to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 28, 2022 to determine if the case will go forward. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Arnold: I am running as an independent because, in the year 2018, Republican and Democratic administrators were not interested in (Teacher Incentives for Public Schools) and a program to enlist ‘real’ assistants for MNPS.

Editor’s note: Arnold created the program, TIPS, for his 2018 campaign and presented a model where funding was based on individual barriers faced by students. Funding would increase based on the number and extent of the barriers. 

Q: I read through your campaign page in which you seek to remove capital expenditures from the budget. What expenditures are you referring to? 

Arnold: Capital expenditure is money spent to upgrade the physical school buildings – upgrade electrical, upgrade water, pave the driveway, paint classrooms and expand the physical building. In the year 2018, McMurray Middle School, in District 2, spent $22 million dollars to upgrade the physical building. This expenditure comes out of the school budget. Surrounding counties – Rutherford,  Sumner,  Williamson, and Wilson– use a bond issue similar to the bond issue used to build the Nashville Sounds stadium and the proposed Tennessee Titans’ new stadium.

The removal of capital expenditures will free up an estimated $10 million dollars a year to be used for a program to add ‘real’ assistants in classrooms that need (English as a Second Language). 

The maximum number of students in a classroom should be 18 but most classrooms are as large as 30. MNPS teachers, in a 2018 survey, believe if they had a ‘real’ assistant (students in education from Belmont University, Lipscomb University, TSU, and Vanderbilt University), they could turn the whole issue of education around.

I want to try it and fund an assistant program through the removal of capital expenditures.

District 4: Berthena Nabba-McKinney (Democrat) and Kelli Phillips (Republican).

Berthena Nabaa-McKinney

After the sudden death of District 4 school board member Anna Shepard in 2020, Nabba-McKinney was appointed to as a temporary replacement until special elections were held in November. John Little, a charter school advocate, won the November election but Nabba-McKinney defeated Little in the May 3 Democratic Primary. 

Nabba-McKinney’s experiences include being a long-time educator. She a member of the district’s Parent Advisory Council.  

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Nabaa-McKinney: Due to a law that the Tennessee legislature enacted, what were normally nonpartisan races are now partisan races. You are seeing some of that partisanship show up in races as we talk about kids and what’s best for them, so that has really been difficult for me in this race. 

Honestly, it hasn’t changed how I campaign for the seat. I fundamentally believe that we should take politics out and I believe our school board races shouldn’t be partisan. We educate kids, regardless of their parent’s political affiliation and I really think that should be the focus. As a result of those beliefs, I have gotten a lot of bipartisan support for my campaign.

I really pride myself on running a positive campaign because I want to be a representation of what I want to see in our kids, so I have focused on not bashing and saying negative things about my opponent. 

Regardless of our political party, I just hope we want what’s best for kids. Being in a local election and being in a community election, ultimately it comes back to the kids in our schools and I’m going to look after them regardless of what party their parents are. And I need to be able to have those relationships after this. 

Berthena Nabaa-McKinney (Photo: John Partipilo)
Berthena Nabaa-McKinney (Photo: John Partipilo)

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Nabaa-McKinney: We came out of tornadoes. Then we had social unrest and elections, and I think all of those things caused a lot of disruption for kids and their learning. I think our students and our teachers are struggling right now, and they just want some normalcy.

You are seeing more parents that are frustrated speak out and voice their concerns about how the disruptions are impacting them and how we can prioritize and get back to focusing on what’s best for kids and finding some sort of normalcy, if there is any.  

Q: You served on the board after a board member’s death during the pandemic. What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Nabaa-McKinney: While I was on the board for that amount of time, we actually got a lot of things done.  School had already started virtually and there was a lot of debate as to whether we were going to return to school, so the priority was that your families, our students and our staff had the resources needed to be successful.

One of the things we were able to do in the Donelson–Hermitage–Old Hickory area was work with the district to ensure that families who were struggling had access to technology or try to understand how it works. 

They had a physical place they could go to. We were able to open up a tech support center in Donelson Middle School for families to be able to go if they needed help with their child or needed a hotspot or learn how to get on the online platform. We were able to provide that space. We were also able to provide translators.

The second challenge that we had were parents who were frontline workers who needed childcare while they went to work. We were able to expand and ensure we had enough centers in this area to support families. They had a safe place for their kids. 

The third challenge we had was when we were talking about returning back to school, families realized that Two Rivers Middle School only had a wall air conditioner unit instead of a (heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit) HVAC system. We were able to allocate funds so that Two Rivers Middle School was able to get an HVAC system.

All of that in three months, but if it wasn’t for the relationship with the community, with  families as well as relationships with school staff, our teachers and our principals in this area, I wouldn’t have been able to advocate in a way that supports families. 

Kelli Phillips

Davidson County school board candidate
Kelli Phillips poses at the polls. (Photo: submitted)

Phillips has previously operated a childcare facility. She got involved in politics after attending a MNPS school board meeting to speak against mask mandates, which she said negatively impacted her three-year-old son, who has a speech impediment. 

Phillips has also been outspoken against CRT and was endorsed by Moms for Liberty.

She declined to comment for this article.   

District 6: Incumbent Fran Bush (independent) faces Cheryl Mayes (Democrat).

Fran Bush

Incumbent Fran Bush is the owner and director of Model Kids Learning Academy and was first elected onto the board in 2018.

After the MNPS school board voted to reinstate mask mandates, Bush was the sole vote of opposition and advocated for parental choice. In early 2021, Bush became embroiled in controversy after engaging in a lengthy — and sometimes hostile — Facebook debate with MNPS parents. 

Bush also pushed for schools to reopen in 2020 while criticizing other board members and was endorsed by Moms for Liberty.

She did not respond to requests for comment before publication. 

Cheryl Mayes

Mayes, who served on the MNPS board from 2010-2014, works as a district director for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Mayes: This race is special because this is the first time we have partisan school board races in Tennessee.  It’s unfortunate because educating our children is one place we all need to be on the same page, not divided based on party affiliation. Our children are too important and should never be used as political pawns. 

Cheryl Mayes. (Candidate Facebook page)
Cheryl Mayes. (Candidate Facebook page)

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections? 

Mayes: Some school boards have become very contentious and, in some cases, that behavior has divided communities over subjects that have little to do with student outcomes, which is what school board members should be focused on.   

Q: What do you think are the biggest issues school faculties will face this year?

Mayes: Funding is always one of the biggest issues for schools.  Metro schools, like many districts around the country, are facing teacher shortages.  This may prove to be a big issue as we welcome our students back to the classroom. We need to identify what the issues are related to teachers leaving the profession and/or not applying for teaching positions in our schools, and resolve the issues as soon as possible. 

District 8: First time candidates Erin O’Hara Block (Democrat) and Amy Pate (Independent) compete. 

Erin O’Hara Block

O’Hara has held several education-related positions for the state, including working as an executive director for the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, worked for the Tennessee Department of Education,  as an education policy advisory for former-Gov. Phil Bredesen and as a research director for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. O’Hara also worked as adjunct faculty for Vanderbilt University. 

O’Hara was endorsed by the SEIU Local 205. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Block: For me, this race is about common-sense, evidence-based solutions that will allow Metro Nashville Public Schools to have a great public school in every neighborhood. 

As a school board member, I will advocate for creating great schools by investing in excellent school leaders and giving autonomy at the school level; focusing on student recovery and growth in both academics and mental health; and investing smartly based on clear goals, regular progress monitoring, and responding to the individual needs of individual schools

Strategic focus on solving the district’s most pressing problems – early literacy, middle grades math, and preparation for college and career – will lead to progress. 

Erin O'Hara Block (Photo: Submitted)
Erin O’Hara Block (Photo: Submitted)

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Block: I believe we are in one of the most challenging times we have seen in public education, certainly in my lifetime. The pandemic placed enormous strains on educators, students, and families, and exacerbated existing issues around student achievement and mental health. We now must be focused every day on recovery – both in academics and mental health. Though we still have a long way to go in recovering from the pandemic and ensuring all Nashville students can succeed after high school, we should recognize and applaud the strong progress students and teachers made this past school year. 

As your school board member, I will put our kids and teachers first. I have the experience as a parent leader, policymaker, and researcher of asking the tough questions, pointing to the hard issues, AND offering real and effective solutions to pressing problems.

Q: As a first-time candidate, what challenges do you face?

Block: First and foremost, I’m a mom, so spending time away from my kids has been hard, even if they recognize how important this election is for all kids, including them. 

As a mom and having spent my career in education research, policy, and government, running for political office is new to me. I’m proud to have kept my campaign positive and focused on solutions for our toughest challenges in MNPS. Working for Gov. (Phil) Bredesen and as an assistant commissioner of education taught me that accountability isn’t just about pointing out the problems, it’s also about working together to get things done.

An effective school board is one who engages in productive debate on the critical issues of the moment with the best interests of our students, educators, and community in mind. I believe we need school board members who will model the type of civility we expect of our students. The issues we face together are too important and urgent for anything else.

Q: You mention mental health among school staff and students as one of your priorities. How do you plan on addressing this issue?

Block: As a parent of MNPS middle schoolers, through personal experience, and with my experience in education research, I know that students struggle to learn and teachers struggle to teach when trauma, grief, and other mental health needs go unaddressed. 

If elected, I’ll prioritize making sure school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers have the time and resources they need to address mental health issues for students. I’ll also work with school district officials, school leaders, community members, and city leadership to ensure Nashville has an integrated set of systems to support the mental health of students and educators. 

Amy Pate

Pate has served in several parent-teacher organizations, including at Glendale Elementary School and J.T. Moore Middle School. 

In her campaign, Pate has been critical of the MNPS school board for keeping schools closed in 2020.

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Pate: MNPS is at a point where it will either be saved and improved, or will completely fall apart.  Even pre-COVID, key benchmarks were down including several years in a row of decreasing 3rd-grade literacy and declining student enrollment.  The board’s disastrous decision to keep schools closed for most of 2020-2021 only accelerated this trend.  As an MNPS alum and parent, I cannot allow our public schools to continue on this path.  This race is important because if we do not act with urgency to increase accountability, build trust with families and catch kids up, we’re going to lose a generation to a failed system.  In the last decade we’ve lost 14% of students and our student achievement is last in the state.  The status quo is not working.

My race in District 8 is important because I’m running as an independent to show that a non-partisan and non-political mom can win a school board race.  I’m more often a Democratic voter, but feel deeply that schools and school boards have a duty to remain apolitical. We need candidates with a laser focus on kids and families. Democrats said they didn’t want school board races to be partisan, but they’re flooding this race with an obscene amount of money to try and win. Not help kids, just win elections.  My opponent’s team and their consultants are going to spend at least four to five times as much as me and are relying on old political smear tactics.  I think voters in my district will see through this because they want invested parents and community members, not politicians, on our local school board. I think it’s important to show that an Independent who puts kids first is the best choice.

Amy Pate working at the polls.(Photo:Submitted)
Amy Pate working at the polls.(Photo:Submitted)

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Pate: The events of the last few years have caused parents like me to become even more involved. Although I have always been an active volunteer–PTO president, room parent–and followed education policy closely, I never planned on running for school board. I’m not doing it to add to my resume or launch into politics. My sole purpose for running is to make my kids’, and therefore all kids’, schools’ better. 

I’m running as an independent because the politicization of schools is antithetical to putting kids first. I refuse to participate in culture wars, because kids are always caught in the middle. The MNPS decision to keep schools closed during COVID-19 is a prime example of this phenomenon. 

By fall of 2020, we knew that schools could be safe and were essential for children’s academic and mental well being. The MNPS school board however became entrenched in their political ideology and refused to open schools until eight months later, longer than all surrounding counties and private schools (February 2021 for grades five to eight, March 2021 for High School). 

When I realized in October 2020 that MNPS would not open unless forced, I became an open-schools activist. I connected with a group of parents who had formed Let Nashville Parents Choose. Through this work I saw the disdain and condescension with which parents were treated. The current board is more interested in preserving the patronage system than putting kid’s needs first. The results are falling enrollment and academic achievement. I’m running to make a change and better the schools I grew up in and love dearly.

Q: As a first-time candidate what challenges do you face?

Pate: I knew that it would be hard to run as an Independent, but I didn’t realize it would be this hard. I hate the viSe-grip that party politics has on the electoral process. Once you get a party’s nomination, the gears of the machine start turning, leading to money and endorsements. 

I have turned down all outside money, all PACs and all endorsements because I want to maintain my independence.  My opponent will spend four or five times as much as me, especially with the recent influx of PAC cash. They’ve gone negative and published some untruths about me. They’ve hired expensive consultants. But I’m an MNPS grad so I’ve got grit and determination! And I’ve got my community’s full support. 

Q: You mention that you seek to combat no-bid contracts and inflated bureaucracy. Could you elaborate?

Pate: As a board member I will make sure that every dollar we spend benefits teaching, learning and kids.  Our schools have a $1 billion budget, yet we have teachers posting their Amazon wish-lists for basic supplies. Where does the money go?  While MNPS is making some good investments, like increasing teacher and bus driver pay, we are also wasting a lot of money that could be redirected to classrooms. 

When I ask teachers what they need and what they are getting, I hear they need more support for at-risk students. I never hear they are getting help from the central office. The further you get from the classroom, the more you get paid.  MNPS has a lot of people at Bransford Avenue making a lot more money than our teachers.  We need to move as much money and jobs from the central office back to the schools as possible.

This year MNPS had a “surprise” 22.6M budget deficit.  Everyone but our board and MNPS admin saw this coming as a direct result of losing 4,000 students last year.  

We also need to understand that the only sustainable way to increase funding is to increase enrollment.  

At the same time, the current board, with the exception of Fran Bush, has been silent on the $18M no-bid contract with Meharry Medical College Ventures.  Parents and community members have been asking about this contract for 18 months, and the only response from MNPS leadership and the board has been dismissive. Even now that the state comptroller is investigating, the board doesn’t acknowledge their lack of vetting. You’ve got to ask, how could this money have been better spent for kids? And what other suspect contracts does MNPS have that are wasting public money, enriching cronies and not helping kids?  A school board has 2 main jobs: hire and manage the director of schools and manage the budget. Our current board does neither.


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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.