Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney scrambled into full-blown damage control mode Friday after parents, teachers, and residents of Williamson County criticized him for implementing a system wide left-wing “white privilege” in-serving training program for teachers this academic year.
Looney, this week, was also stung by a report that Williamson County Schools was teaming up with the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Tennessee Star broke the “white privilege” story last Wednesday.
What Looney reportedly said Friday differs from what he reportedly said Thursday.
Looney spoke directly on the phone with one Williamson County resident Friday and provided one sentence explanations for these two simmering controversies.
“I spoke personally to Dr. Looney this morning. He advised that he learned some teachers had signed up for SPLC workshops and (he) put a stop to it,” the Williamson County resident said.
Later in the day, Looney also backpedaled on the SPLC workshop in an email to Debbie Deaver, Chairman of the Williamson County GOP, which said “Please correct your statement relating to WCS’s participation in training by the SPLC. WCS is NOT participating in this training. The truth is that we had 20 employees register for the workshop but when I learned of it I cancelled their registration.”
Looney’s SPLC About-Face
On Wednesday, March 13, Brentwood resident Frank Wegerson emailed Looney to complain about the Williamson County Cultural Competency Series and the report that teachers from Williamson County Schools would attend a workshop sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the SPLC in Franklin, Tenn. on Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4, as The Star reported the following day:
Wegerson said he was also worried about the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center holding a workshop in Franklin that county teachers will attend.
So Wegerson emailed Superintendent Mike Looney Wednesday morning – and, much to his surprise, he got an almost immediate response.
Only minutes after pressing the ‘send’ button, the Brentwood resident said Looney read the email and called to tell him that he wanted the conference to go “straight down the middle,” without “bias toward the left or right.” . .
“He [Looney] just thanked me for sending him the article and said he wanted to hit it down the middle, wanted to be straight, not going too far left or right and I thought, well, that’s interesting because he chose the most left organization. I didn’t say it to him, but that’s what I was thinking,” Wegerson said. (emphasis added)
“When I hung up with him, I got the feeling, he said to me, approximately 20 teachers or educators out of 600 or so in the Williamson County System had signed up for this May 2 and 3 event. He hoped it would go over well.”
Despite his claim on Friday — “when I learned of it I cancelled their registration” — Looney clearly knew of the SPLC workshop some time before he said he cancelled the registration of 20 teachers. Looney’s response also raises this curious question, which was one of several we posed to Williamson County Schools spokesperson Carol Birdsong this Friday:
- Dr. Looney apparently said on Friday he cancelled the attendance of 20 WCS teachers at the May 3 to May 4 SPLC/Teach Tolerance workshop. How exactly did he cancel those 20 attendees? Did he advise the SPLC on behalf of WCS, which had paid for the workshops to the SPLC and require a refund? Did he instruct the teachers individually to cancel their attendance and require proof of those cancellations?
Birdsong did not respond to those questions.
Indeed, The Star specifically asked Williamson County Schools spokesperson Carol Birdsong on Monday, March 11, about the Williamson County Schools teachers who had signed up for the SPLC workshop in Franklin in these emailed questions:
- Can you confirm that Williamson County Schools will be sending teacher representatives to attend this Southern Poverty Law Center project in Franklin May 3 and May 4 on Teaching Tolerance: https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/workshops#nashville
- If so, how many teachers will WCS be sending to the event?
Birdsong did not respond to those questions.
The following day, Tuesday, March 12, The Star asked Birdsong additional questions about the SPLC conference in emailed questions:
- Are you recommending, encouraging, helping or requiring teachers from your district to participate and attend this May 3 Southern Poverty Law Center training in Franklin?
- Has your school district received any money from the Southern Poverty Law Center?
Birdsong did not respond to those questions.
Again, on the next day, Wednesday, March 13, The Star asked Birdsong even more questions about the SPLC conference in emailed questions:
- Why has Williamson County Schools teamed up with the left wing hate group Southern Poverty Learning Center, which is conducting a “Teaching Tolerance” seminar to at least 20 Williamson County Schools teachers in Franklin on May 3 and 4?
Birdsong again did not respond to those questions.
Since The Star broke the first story in this series on Williamson County Schools last Wednesday, Looney has refused to answer a number of questions posed to him by The Star through Williamson County Schools spokesperson Carol Birdsong. For her part, Birdsong provided few responses to our queries during the first week of the series, from Wednesday March 6 to Friday March 8, but has refused to respond to more than a dozen requests for comment or confirmations of fact sent to her between late Friday, March 8, and late Friday, March 15.
And the tip provided to The Star by a teacher earlier that same Monday makes it abundantly clear that Williamson County Schools was actively sending teachers to the SPLC conference and that principals within the Williamson County Schools System were part of the communication channel to the teachers about the conference.
“I am a WCS teacher and want you to know that most teachers were appalled by this [“white privilege”] presentation (shown county wide, not just some schools),” the teacher emailed The Star.
“Want more? May 3 and 4, WCS is sending a few teachers (5 from our school) to the SPLC seminar here https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/workshops#nashville,” the teacher continued.
“What’s worse, when I voiced concern to one of our principals, they were not even aware of what the SPLC was about. Scary stuff,” the teacher concluded.
In light of this evidence, it seems likely that Dr. Looney was well aware of the SPLC training seminar prior to Monday, March 11, and that the Williamson County Schools was engaged in official communications with teachers throughout the system about potentially participating in the SPLC workshop.
The planning horizon for that SPLC workshop extended back at least several months, as this page from the Spring 2019 edition of the Teaching Tolerance Magazine, which was published online on January 24 of this year indicates.
The map shows “Nashville” as a training site, and in all communications from the Teaching Tolerance project, the “Nashville” workshop refers to the May 3 to May 4 workshop to be held in Franklin, Tennessee–the county seat of Williamson County.
It is unclear what, if any, role WCS may have had in the planning of the SPLC workshop, but the fact that it is being held in Williamson County rather than Davidson County or elsewhere in Middle Tennessee suggests further information is needed.
The Teaching Tolerance website, for instance, notes that groups may request workshops in their area, as this pdf of the site’s entire home page indicates:
To help answer these questions, The Star filed an open records request with Williamson County Schools on Friday for the following information:
- All communications, email, print, or otherwise, between Dr. Looney or anyone in the Williamson County Schools (WCS) administration with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) or the SPLC Teach Tolerance Project regarding the SPLC/Teach Tolerance workshop in Franklin, Tennessee on May 3, 2019 and May 4, 2019 or any other matters.
- All communications, email, print, or otherwise, between Dr. Looney or anyone in the WCS administration with principals and staff at any WCS high school, middle school, or elementary school, and with teachers at any WCS high school, middle school, or elementary school regarding the SPLC/Teach Tolerance workshop in Franklin, Tennessee on May 3, 2019 and May 4, 2019.
- All financial records of payments made by the SPLC or the SPLC/Teach Tolerance Project to WCS, WCS administrators, and WCS teachers, as well as all financial records of payments made by WCS, WCS administrators, and WCS teachers to the SPLC and SPLC/Teach Tolerance project.
- All communications, email, print, or otherwise, between Dr. Looney or anyone in the Williamson County Schools (WCS) administration sent out to anyone or received from anyone, period, regarding the SPLC workshop on May 3, 2019 and May 4, 2019 sent between March 11, 2019 through March 15, 2019.
- All communications, email, print, or otherwise, sent out or received in January 2019, February 2019, and March 2019 containing the terms “Southern Poverty Law Center,” “SPLC” “Teaching Tolerance,” “Embassy Suites,” “tolerance.org,” “Teaching Tolerance,” “social justice,” “anti-bias,” “Franklin Workshop,” “Social Justice Teaching 101,” and “Facilitating Critical Conversations.”
“White Privilege Training”: Looney claims Commissioner of Education approved it, Tennessee Department of Education says it did not approve it
With regards to the controversial “white privilege” training developed by WCS in the Williamson County Schools Cultural Competency Series, the Williamson County resident who spoke on the phone with Dr. Looney on Friday said, “He [Looney] also told me that the PD [Professional Development] curriculum was approved by Gov. Haslam’s Commissioner of Education [Candace McQueen], not by [current Commissioner of Education Penny] Schwinn, as was the appropriate thing to do at the time.”
But a source familiar with the operations of the Tennessee Department of Education told The Star that former Commissioner McQueen did not approve the Williamson County Schools Cultural Competency Series, nor did the Tennessee Department of Education.
And last week, in an emailed statement to The Star, the spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education directly contradicted Looney’s Friday claim, as The Star reported:
The Tennessee Star asked TDOE officials Tuesday and Wednesday whether officials from that department had approved Williamson’s “white privilege” In-service training curriculum?
TDOE spokeswoman Chandler Hopper, in an emailed statement, said the following:
“Tennessee is a state that believes in local authority, so the content of inservice trainings is decided upon at the local level,” Hopper wrote.
“For more information you should contact Williamson County Schools.”
Williamson County School System spokeswoman Carol Birdsong did not immediately return The Star’s request for comment on these and other matters Tuesday and Wednesday. The Star also asked Birdsong if the county has a paid diversity coordinator on staff and, if so, how much he or she makes annually.
On March 12, The Star emailed the following statement of fact and two questions about the “white privilege” in-service training to Birdsong:
- Gov. Bill Lee in his recent state of the state address said that Tennessee public schools would teach students “unapologetic American exceptionalism.”
- In light of that statement and in light of the privilege theory incorporated and promoted in your county school system’s cultural competency series that has been widely described as exactly opposite and counter to unapologetic American exceptionalism, do you plan on stopping that program immediately?
- If not, why?
Birdsong did not respond.
On March 13, The Star emailed the following questions about the “white privilege” in-service training to Birdsong:
- Why has Dr. Looney embraced the anti-American exceptionalism philosophy of left wing academic Peggy McIntosh’s “privilege theory,” when it is in direct opposition to Gov. Lee’s State of the State promise to teach Tennessee’s school children “unapologetic American exceptionalism?”
- Why has Williamson County Schools failed to provide evidence that the Williamson County Culture Competency Series was included in the system’s in-service training plan for 2018-2019?
- Why has Williamson County Schools failed to provide evidence that the Williamson County Schools in-service training plan for 2018-2019 was submitted to The Tennessee Department of Education before June 1, 2018, as required by law, and was approved by the Commissioner of Education prior to implementation in Williamson County Schools, as required by law?
Again, Birdsong did not respond.