Challengers at final Nashville schools forum focus on incumbent

    Joelton Elementary School (MNPS website)
    Joelton Elementary School (MNPS website)

    Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) hosted the final virtual forum of four Thursday for Metro Nashville Schools Board candidates, and the District 1 event became contentious.

    District 1 has the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, the highest percentage of students of color, the lowest literacy scores in MNPS and  average ACT score in the district is 14.4 while the national average is 20.8. 

    The MNPS board also voted to consolidate or close four schools in the district in June.

    Candidates Barry Barlow and Robert Taylor are taking on incumbent Sharon Gentry, Ph.D., who referenced her experience in the role.

    Sharon Dixon Gentry, Ph.D. (Photo: MNPS)
    Sharon Dixon Gentry, Ph.D. (Photo: MNPS)

    Gentry, who works at HCA, was first elected to the board in 2008. She has been endorsed by Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA), Women in Numbers and the Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. She is the former wife of Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry, who is a formidable presence in Nashville politics. 

    “My method and approach will be to be present at the table: leverage all the skills and talents I have developed as a board member and as a 23-year corporate employee here in Nashville,” said Gentry. “I know what the challenges are that come from where we are today. I’m here to be a part of that conversation, to be part of the solution and ensure that individuals know what their options are.”

    Taylor has worked as a Rule 31 Mediator, a person approved by Tennessee’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission to conduct court-ordered mediations. He has accepted no PAC money and received endorsements from family and friends. 

    “As a parent and as a committee member, I am not satisfied with the level of service I have received. I believe I offer a different leadership where I will actually be engaged with parents, actually be engaged with families, actually be engaged with the students in the schools so that I will know what their issues are,” said Taylor. 

    Barlow, who ran for Metro Council District 3 in 2019, has received donations from friends and family. 

    “I’m ready to take some of the things I have learned over the past decade and use those ideas to make things better for both parents and students,” said Barlow. 

    Rev. Perry Wiggins, III from NOAH asked candidates a series of questions about a variety of issues centered on racial equality and equity in the district.

    Wiggins questioned candidates about solutions for racial inequality in public schools.

    Barlow’s solution is to push policies targeting children from early ages for gifted learning in order to level the playing field and promote MNPS’s collaboration with Nashville State Community College, which allows students to earn an associate degree.  

    Gentry referred to  previous collaborations with NOAH to address inequities and said funding remains the main obstacle to creating equity and will push for continued programming to address social bias. 

    Sharon Dixon Gentry, Ph.D. (Photo: MNPS)
    Robert Taylor (Photo: Ballotpedia)

    Taylor pointed out the correlation between students that are economically disadvantaged and issues of social bias and thinks Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) could provide further assistance to families through financial and emotional support. Board members should also guarantee there is funding for policies addressing these issues: It’s not fair, said Taylor, to the staff to ask them to implement programs without additional resources. 

    Wiggins asked candidates about whether they supported restorative justice practices and how they would implement the policy. 

    Gentry referenced her attempts as a board member to push this policy, but funding halted any efforts. Board members put requests for policies to be put in budget and the council then decides on what funds are available. She wants to continue working with NOAH to analyze data and find ways to receive the funding. 

    Taylor’s experiences with restorative justice include pushing for policies that provided young men with mentors and developed their values. He then repeats his previous statement of needing access to resources before enacting a policy because the effort can cause more damage than good if not resourced properly. 

    Barlow supports the use of social and emotional learning to slow the suspension rates and finds a possible solution in having additional training for support staff in order to address gaps and lack of funding. 

    The school board election is August 6. Early voting starts July 17.