GALLATIN, Tennessee – Dozens of parents attended Tuesday evening’s Sumner County Board of Education meeting in opposition to the rezoning plan of Sumner County Schools (SCS) Director of Schools Del Phillips and called for his resignation or termination by the board.
The major point of contention for the parents, several of whom wore shirts displaying a Stop Stage 1 logo, is that some elementary and middle school students will be temporarily re-zoned from their current schools for the 2019-2020 school year before being permanently rezoned to newly constructed schools for the 2021-2022 school year. The temporary and permanent series of zone changes have been named by Director Phillips as Stage 1 and Stage 2, respectively.
The group of parents organized on October 23, 2018, the same day the rezoning plan was introduced by Director Phillips in a non-voting “retreat” of the school board. The goal of the group, named “Stop Stage 1 – Better Solutions for SCSC Temporary Rezoning,” is to stop the temporary or transitional rezoning of students. Stop Stage 1 is not against the permanent rezoning to the new three-school campus, and in fact, has specifically stated their support for the building of it.
Per the school system’s Stage 1 map, the rezoning plan will impact students currently attending Station Camp Elementary and Middle schools who live north of Long Hollow Pike and south of Cummings Lane / Garrison Branch, primarily between Upper Station Camp Creek Road and Harris Lane. Areas most affected are the Carrellton subdivision and Neal’s Lane.
Attendance at the school board meeting was particularly high, considering that the Stage 1 rezoning will impact only about 200 of the district’s nearly 30,000 students.
Of the twelve parents who got up to speak against the two-stage rezoning plan during the public comments section of the meeting which is limited to items that appear on the agenda, in a highly unusual move five called for the resignation of Sumner County School Director Del Phillips or his termination by the Sumner County Board of Education.
None of the parents or any other attendee spoke in favor of the proposed rezoning plan.
While the Stop Stage 1 group was more or less organized by three parents of students in the Stage 1 rezoning area, they insist that there are no leaders. The individuality of the members was reflected in the comments, suggestions and observations speakers made while at the podium.
The parents, with obvious passion and emotion for their children, repeated a theme that only one plan was considered.
Kevin Stewart, father of a student and one of the group’s organizers, made his point clear when he said, “Let me make this simple. NO! We do not accept this plan.”
Stewart opined that children were being used as flexible capital to improve scores at other schools and called out the school board that “still blindly follows Dr. Phillips.” According to Stewart, “Dr. Phillips has lead this county into a crisis,” and in failing to provide alternative options for the rezoning, “has failed in his responsibility to this board.”
Stewart concluded by demanding the immediate resignation of Dr. Phillips and adding that “we will also accept the resignation of any board member who believes they are not required to uphold their responsibilities to the people.”
Mother of two and Stop Stage 1 organizer, Dana Smith, said she was frustrated and worried, especially with what she has seen in the news and personally uncovered about the school director in addition to the rezoning plan. Smith questioned the “true motivations behind this plan and the integrity of those who developed it, since the data and facts supporting it have yet to be released to the public as requested.” Calling the leadership completely unacceptable, Smith also called for the resignation of the director of schools.
Smith distributed to the board members a multi-page handout titled Topics & Questions to Consider before You Vote under the Stop Stage 1 Temporary Rezoning logo, and offered to provide additional information she had compiled upon request.
Several parents said that they either moved to, built a house or chose to make the change from homeschooling to public schools simply because of the Station Camp schools. That group included Michael Garcia, a Marine who is a self-described “100 percent PTSD veteran,” and father of five for whom the rezoning “brings a lot of anxiety and depression on myself, my wife and my kids.”
Another father, who said they all love their children fiercely, read a quote by Director Phillips found on the school board website that concluded, “Often students are left out of that process. We need to ask them. We must give validity to what students do and say about our schools. They are our primary customers.”
The father asked the board rhetorically if they had asked these students how this will or is affecting them and if the board had given validity to these children’s concerns, feelings or thoughts? He responded, “No,” and then contrasted his experience with the board, “Instead there have been snarky, smug and inappropriate comments made to all of us sitting here. Comments like, ‘This is our opportunity to teach our children resiliency from multiple board members. And, my favorite, ‘Suck it up, buttercup.’”
Several other parents mentioned the “Suck it up, buttercup,” statement that parents told The Tennessee Star was made by District 8 board member Ted Wise during a recent study session of the board during a discussion on the topic of the Stage 1 rezoning.
Another of the group’s organizers, David Matsumoto, spoke of his intention to deliver a report to the board. His efforts have been delayed by a nearly two-month turn around on his open records requests. Turning the responsibility back to the board, Matsumoto said, “Regardless of our report, I wish we saw more of you coming to the table with ideas and options of your own. I wish I heard more lively discussion about those ideas and options.
I wish this rezoning proposal was an actual, tangible report that you could take home to review and contemplate. At study sessions, I wish there were more materials to study. Facts and figures, handouts, homework, reports, presentations with a depth of understanding. This is a $100 million re-zoning proposal that will affect a large part of the county in perpetuity. The lack of interest and quality of the proposal itself has been disappointing.
Having kids in the Sumner County schools since the time Phillips came on board, Matsumoto’s confidence has been shaken since the re-zoning proposal, which he said “has been a catalyst for my realization that it’s not as solid as I assumed.”
Although Matsumoto said with “crystal clarity” he was not calling for firing or any other action, legal or otherwise, he does think “the administration and board have a lot of room for improvement.”
Brian Bean, who spoke after listening to the comments of many others and revealed he didn’t prepare for speaking, was nonetheless thoughtful and well-spoken. Bean made the observation, “Calls for resignation and high tempers and tension that’s in the room tonight is the result of no transparency, no trust, very little discussion, no relationship. If there was trust been the board and parents, the board and voters, my guess is tension would be a little lower, trust would be a little higher.”
Bean requested of the board, “If there is an alternative that we don’t have to move our kids twice, clearly that’s what we want.” Relating it back to the elected board members, Bean said, “There should be no doubt about what our wishes and our interests are tonight. Getting that kind of direct feedback from your constituents, from the people who vote you into office, I would think is valuable.”
Questioning the rezoning plan, another mother, Courtney Smith, said she had previously made a request that her child be transferred to Beech. In his response, she was told by the school director in emails “Beech was overcrowded,” which prompted her comment before the board, “now all of a sudden it’s not.”
Also, as one who volunteers “a lot” at Station Camp Elementary, Smith noted that there are four classrooms used for preschool and speech and not exclusively for Station Camp children. Proposing that those four classrooms move to Burrus which is at just 56 percent of capacity, Smith said would free up space for 80 students as one option.
Smith then pointed out that there are 10 portables sitting empty at the middle school, while portables are currently in use at Howard Elementary. She dismissed the safety factor excuse relative to use of portables, citing that a gun was found in the brick and mortar Station Camp High School building.
As she returned to her seat, the other parents gave Smith a fairly lengthy standing ovation.
After nearly an hour of highly charged public comments, it was District 4 Board Member Sarah Andrews who broke a somewhat awkward silence after the calls for resignation or termination of the board’s employee. Andrews did not delve into that issue, but said she understood the “appearance of only one plan.” Andrews said that she has looked at it different ways and concluded, “I see this as honestly the only option.”
Andrews reviewed some of the options she personally has considered as well as the number of homes for sale within the are general area being discussed. She also reported that the number of Station Camp Elementary students went from 1,026 in August to 1,088 that day.
Saying she wasn’t going to sugarcoat it, Andrews said, “The truth is you’re being rezoned twice, but also after two years it’s done and we’re not rezoning again.”
With parents restless by this point, some yelled out in response, “How do we know that?”
Chairman Tim Brewer brought down the gavel four times, and admonished the crowd, “We’re going to have to maintain order folks. We’ve listened to you and now it’s time for us to discuss, so please keep quiet.” Remarking that he didn’t want to do it, Chairman Brewer pointed out the deputy who could be called upon to maintain order.
Andrews made a motion to amend the Stage 1 rezoning plan to grandfather currently enrolled 8th-grade students at Station Camp Middle School to be allowed to attend Station Camp High School for two years, provided they provide their own transportation with no sibling clause. No sibling clause, as was later clarified, means that younger siblings of the current 8th graders would not be eligible for the same accommodation.
By voice vote, the amendment was eventually approved unanimously by the board, allowing 23 students the flexibility by providing their own transportation to delay their transfer until their junior year in high school, when they will permanently transfer to the new high school.
In between, there was lengthy commentary, primarily by District 6 board member Jim Hawkins, who represents the area being rezoned.
Hawkins urged all of the board members, “Take this handout that you’ve gotten tonight,” as he held up the document Dana Smith distributed earlier, “Stop Stage 1 Temporary Rezoning Topics & Questions to Consider before You Vote, and instead of reading it in a defensive or adversarial way, sit down with an open mind over the next few weeks.” He then encouraged that for the board’s February vote on the rezoning, “Let’s try to be as sensitive to and as aware of the topics and questions that have been raised by these parents.”
To those who called for the resignation or termination of Phillips, Hawkins said he politely but firmly differs with them. Hawkins also said that relative to the resignation of board members, “Every member of this board has that passion for serving our students, for serving our schools and making our system stronger. So, when you ask for either our director or any board member to step away, I must tell you that that request is off base.”
Hawkins pointed out that the board members are elected on a staggered two year basis, which is the time and method to make changes.
With regard to Phillips, Hawkins said he has “proven himself to be a high quality educational professional,” and that Phillips’ annual detailed itemized scoring is a matter of public record. The last review of Phillips was done in August 2018 and with a possible score of 2,750, Phillips scored 2,742 or 99.7 percent.
The five areas of scoring include board relationship, community relationship, facilities and finance, vision and student achievement. The board’s August evaluation of Phillips was completed prior to his announcement of the re-zoning plan in October.
Patricia Brown, District 9 board member, said “None of us are happy about having to make this decision,” and that that they want “the parents happy and the students in the best situation.” Brown said she thinks we have “wonderful teachers and schools, and we will do our best to ensure that any transitions that take place are pleasurable and special.”
Brown added, “We have a head of Instruction,” referring to Assistant Director of Schools for Instruction Scott Langford, who also serves as the current County Commission Chairman, “that will take care of that.”
Brown then reassured, “Kids will feel welcome. They will feel like they belong, and I just hope that the animosity calms down and we come to solutions that will help you.”
District 10 board member Glen Gregory said in defense of Phillips, that while they’ve gone at it a few times, “I have never one time known him to try to hurt an individual student, small children, parents. Not one time.”
Gregory also said that Phillips “worked with other staff members and shared information all along for over two years, maybe three, a long time,” which raises the question why affected parents and students only learned of the rezoning after the October 2018 meeting.
Likewise, District 7 board member and former chairman Andy Daniels said that the rezoning discussion has been going on for some time. “I can tell you that this rezoning isn’t something that just came up in the last month or two, or four or eight months. This has been a process.”
Daniels expressed that one of the things he appreciated most of Phillips is the planning he and his staff do when it comes to making decisions, such as the $70 million in school renovations over the past four years to avoid multiple rezonings that a new high school would have brought on.
Daniels alluded to an earlier meeting when they were provided with a list of suggested alternatives that he believed totaled six, one of which was to allow current high school students to stay until the new campus is opened. One of their first actions, Daniels said, was to make that change.
Following the meeting, Stop Stage 1’s Kevin Stewart told The Star, “The Board has failed to address many of our concerns. Stop Stage 1 has maintained the position that we embrace growth in the county, and support the new schools. In regard to the Stage 1 rezoning proposal, it’s not about which school is better (Beech or Station Camp). We refuse to accept any plan that forces any child to attend four schools in four years.”
“Our reason for calling for Dr. Phillips to resign was outlined clearly by Mr. Daniels, who recalled that Dr. Phillips chose not to build new schools several years ago. It is this poor planning that has led us to this crisis. The Board should hold Dr. Phillips accountable for his actions, and not allow that burden to fall upon the shoulders of our children.”
Alluding to some recent news reports, Dana Smith elaborated to The Star after the meeting that “the call for Dr. Phillips’ resignation was based on poor leadership:
1. Allowing a political candidate to campaign on school property.
2. Allowing his employee to conduct illegal campaign activities on school corporation time.
3. Not providing the data and information used to create this singular plan to the public as requested per the open records act.”
School Board Chairman Tim Brewer did not respond to an inquiry by The Star with regard to what action, if any, the school board will take with regards to the call by several parents for the resignation or termination of school director Del Phillips.
The video of the January 15, 2019, Sumner County Board of Education meeting can be watched here.
Read the school board packet hand out here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.