FOIA Friday: The Tribal Reports



For more than a year, there has been a buzz around town about some analysis work that the U.K.-based Tribal Group had done in the course of a consulting contract with Metro Nashville Public Schools. From Andrea Zelinski's cover story:

What Tribal researchers heard from school administrators was that the centralized MNPS management was more an impediment to progress than an accelerant. Principals complained of "too many initiatives coming from the District" and said they "do not feel confident to abandon things that are not working well," according to a December 2011 Tribal Group report.

Based on these findings, Tribal recommended that MNPS grant more control to principals, giving them greater command and hence a larger stake in their schools' success. Principals "need to be left alone to focus on the improvement journey for their own particular schools," the report stated.

The district took the recommendations in stride, then asked Tribal to go deeper into the Central Office's role at the behest of Director of Schools Jesse Register. Of Tribal Group's four findings a year later, two pointed to the culture of the district office suffocating schools. The Central Office is too bureaucratic and doesn't effectively support continuous improvement, it found, while principals lack autonomy and there's no clearly defined accountability.

Getting to read those reports, which were funded with taxpayer dollars and subject to the Tennessee Open Records Act, however, proved hard to do. Informally and formally in 2012, The City Paper requested Tribal's reports assessing the central office. We weren't the only ones. As detailed in the story, requests by elected officials and others never produced all of the records from MNPS. A limited number of people saw only a few documents.

Councilwoman Emily Evans has had trouble getting documents from the district. When she asked for district-level reports, MNPS loaned her hundreds of hard-copy pages of typed school-by-school reports.

"I always presume it’s designed to limit the distribution of the document, to make sure it doesn’t travel very far. Of course, that’s silly. Scanners are available over desktop now. It’s more an impediment and a way to frustrate somebody," Evans told the Scene

In fact, Evans scanned all of the reports and posted them to the Internet.

Last November, Zelinski received the following email from MNPS in response to a request:

From: "Brown, Olivia H (MNPS)"
Subject: RE: Open Records Request
Date: November 12, 2012 3:26:07 PM CST
To: Andrea Zelinski

This email is in response to your Nov. 2, 2012 open records request. In your email, you stated: “I write to request access to and a copy of any and all reports Tribal Group, Inc., has made on Metro Nashville Public Schools.” The Public Records Act requires that any request for inspection and copying …shall be sufficiently detailed to enable the records custodian to identify the specific records to be located or copied. TCA 10-7-503(a)(7)(B) The TN Court of Appeals recently stated that a request requiring sorting through files to compile the request is improper & invalid per TCA 10-7-503(a)(4).

Your request is broad and does not provide enough detail to allow us to determine the specific documents you are requesting; however, I have attached electronic copies of district-level reports made by Tribal Group. If you have other specific document(s) you wish to view outside of these reports, please provide a document name, author and/or receiver, or some other information that will allow me to identify, determine availability, and retrieve the document.

Please let me know if you have additional questions,

Attached to Brown's email were four reports with observations, recommendations and status updates for the 34 schools Tribal was contracted to study. None looked at Central Office or the district as a whole. The Scene was able to obtain separately multiple district-level reports prepared by Tribal from the same time period, which we have posted below, including the outside assessment of a Boston College professor hired to evaluate the Inspirational Schools Partnership between Tribal and MNPS.

The Open Records Act was created for the specific purpose of accountability, so that government officials and agencies are forced to operate in the sunshine. This seems to be news for MNPS, which recently buried notice of special school board meeting on page 65 of a 67-page board packet instead of on its website, where it has given notice for the last seven years.

Whatever your position on the state of education in Nashville — whether you are pro-charter, anti-charter, pro-teacher, anti-union, a reform advocate or a believer in a strong central district — decisions about how Nashville students are educated are better made and have greater legitimacy when they are done in the public view.

The Tribal reports: TribalReports1.pdf

Boston College assessment: BostonCollegeReport.pdf

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