Will Pinkston loves a good fight

What drives his public battles with old friends, charter school ‘zealots’

Friday, October 2, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 40
By Sam Stockard

Bulldog or bully. Metro School Board member Will Pinkston draws both labels as Nashville debates education issues and elects its top leaders.

Most pointedly, charter schools proponents call him everything from a “monopolist” to combative to polarizing, while supporters say he has passion for the community and education, as well as the willingness to challenge people intent on “dismantling” traditional public schools.

The Metro school board is divided largely by the charter schools issue.

A South Nashville product and former reporter at The Tennessean and Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau, Pinkston, 43, turned political operative in former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration and now deals in public relations.

He put all those together to win the school board’s District 7 seat representing South Nashville in 2012. Once in the seat he began to show a penchant for taking stands that cost him old friendships and thrust him into the midst of major political conflagrations, many of which involved social media skirmishes.

Pinkston, who says he’s neither ruling out nor contemplating running for higher office, even became a player of sorts in Nashville’s mayoral race, backing eventual winner Megan Barry then spending a good deal of energy tweeting about the outcome.

“The charter zealots suffered a humiliating and well-deserved defeat. I’m taking (sic) to you @etduncan,” read one post after Barry defeated David Fox by a 55-to-45 margin.

Duncan

Duncan is Townes Duncan, who served as finance chairman for the Fox campaign and is a political enemy of Pinkston’s stemming largely from disagreements on charter schools in Nashville.

A partner in Solidus investment firm, Duncan disagrees with most of Pinkston’s arguments, especially dealing with charter schools.

“He is counterproductive, he is constantly machinating behind the scenes. He’s not a helpful guy,” Duncan says of Pinkston.

“David and Carrington (Fox) should be ashamed of themselves for letting themselves get co-opted by right-wing political consultants,” read another of Pinkston’s tweets after the mayoral election.

“Attacking faith, economic growth, and Will Pinkston isn’t a very effective political strategy,” he continued.

Mayoral player or not

Nashville political observer Pat Nolan says he’s not so sure Pinkston had a big impact on the mayor’s race since he supported Barry.

“I think because of his controversial nature, David Fox tried to wrap him around Megan Barry and make Megan have to be responsible for everything that Will said. And she obviously didn’t go there,” Nolan points out.

Cooley

On the other hand, Dave Cooley, a friend of Pinkston’s who worked with him in Bredesen’s administration as deputy governor, says he was “a noticeable player” in the mayor’s race.

Cooley, who owns Cooley Public Strategies, points out Fox mentioned Pinkston during at least two of the mayoral debates and in multiple public speeches leading up to the Sept. 10 vote.

“I think David Fox spent quite a bit of time talking about Will, and I don’t think there’s much question Will got in David Fox’s head,” Cooley adds.

How he started

Pinkston grew up in the Nolensville Road area of South Nashville, living with his grandparents. His father died of multiple sclerosis when Pinkston was a child, and his mother moved around the country, often leaving him with his grandparents.

His grandfather, Jim Mosier, was one of the biggest influences on his life, a Depression-era orphan who attended the former Tennessee Preparatory School (Pinkston helped STEM Prep Academy negotiate ownership of a portion of the old TPS campus a couple of years ago, he says).

Mosier, a Navy veteran of World War II, served as a Putnam County judge, then as city manager of Johnson City before settling in Nashville as a businessman. Pinkston calls him the smartest man he ever knew, “a yellow-dog Democrat” who loved politics.

“He instilled in me a strong respect for public service, especially at the local level,” Pinkston says of his grandfather, who died in 2007.

After a stint at The Tennessean and three years with the Wall Street Journal, where he helped produce a Pulitzer Prize-winning edition on Sept. 12, 2011 after the newspaper’s New York office was destroyed, Pinkston moved back to Nashville and climbed on board with Bredesen.

In those eight years, the administration succeeded in starting a pre-kindergarten program in Tennessee, increasing teacher pay, modernizing the state education funding formula, raising the tobacco tax to increase schools revenue and launching reforms to improve Tennessee’s report card.

Bredesen had a knack for making people want to be part of rapid improvements and leaving things better than they were, Pinkston says.

“By the time I got to the end of the Bredesen administration, I really developed a passion for education policy, and also one of the things we figured out was how to really talk about it in ways that were aspirational,” he says.

Pinkston and his wife, Heather Marabeti, a Vanderbilt administrator, live in the 12South area with their young daughter, a student at Glendale Elementary School. He has a 14-year-old son who lives out of his state with his first wife.

His District 7 stretches from his neighborhood past Nolensville Road where he grew up, down to Antioch and over to the Wilson County line.

But while Pinkston says he believes he has aspired to higher education ideals – trying to stem the tide of charter schools, bolstering English Language Learner initiatives and finding a new school system director – his moves and his outspoken style have cost him friendships.

Major falling out

Oddly enough, Pinkston and the Foxes were friends, starting with the days Pinkston and David Fox’s wife, Carrington, worked together at The Tennessean. David Fox also worked at The Tennessean, though not at the same time as Pinkston.

They developed a respect borne of journalism, and Fox, who formerly served as chairman of the Metro School Board, even donated money to Pinkston’s election campaign three years ago.

But, according to Pinkston, when he started publicly knocking the performance of former Metro schools Director Jesse Register, Fox got upset because he had been a key player in selecting Register.

“He was engineering incremental improvement at best,” Pinkston explains of Register. “I talked to him privately over a series of 20 months to try to get him to engineer a greater sense of urgency in the work and also think and act strategically and be a better communicator, do better with parent and public engagement.”

Pinkston also contends Register was at the end of his career yet was “angling” for a two-year contract extension beyond June 30 this year.

Pinkston says Fox began criticizing him for his stance on Register, and their friendship began to dry up, culminating in a bitter election that saw the Fox campaign question Barry’s faith and Pinkston’s school board behavior.

The friendship is “probably irretrievable, and that happens in politics sometimes,” Pinkston says.

Fox, who is much more pro-charter than Barry, did not return phone calls for this article.

Pattern of disputes

The falling out with Fox isn’t Pinkston’s first split to play out publicly.

Pinkston was a founding board member of charter school Nashville Prep before his views on non-profit charters began to change. In fact, he says, it was his service on that board that made him “skeptical” of the charter movement.

“I think there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors at that school and others, and they don’t like people to see what’s going on in the background,” Pinkston explains.

Extended workdays and high teacher turnover raised questions about the nonprofit charters for Pinkston, and he says he believes taxpayer funds are being diverted to charters at the expensive of Metro’s traditional public schools.

Pinkston says he also was “disillusioned” with Nashville Prep’s leader, Ravi Gupta, and calls him “a megalomaniac who wants to be a politician and spends more time in political fights than he spends cultivating the school.”

As a result, Pinkston says he didn’t want to be part of the charter movement and quit the Nashville Prep board in early 2012 before he decided to run for the school board seat.

He has since voted to approve charter applications. But he has soured on them to a degree, saying the charter movement is spending millions of dollars on government relations work designed to pass laws “hostile” to public education, while its public relations arm is designed to tear down critics, including him.

He also says Duncan and others in the pro-charter movement want to shift public funds to private schools through vouchers, a move drawing support in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Pinkston and Gupta, who declined to be interviewed for this article, got caught up in one Facebook battle that put them at further odds after it took on a nasty tone.

At a school board meeting a year and a-half ago, paid charter school advocates had young children in the room circulating “attack” fliers against Pinkston and board member Amy Frogge, who has raised questions about charter schools, too.

Frogge

Pinkston, a veteran of contentious political campaigns, says he took it in stride.

Frogge, who says the media previously pitted her against Pinkston, points out Nashville Prep has staged numerous protests at the school board office, passing out fliers with inaccurate information.

“Really, it’s all about intimidating school board members who oppose their agenda,” she says.

Frogge says she believes “a lot of dishonesty” surrounds the Nashville debate over charter schools.

Charter backers say they provide better results with less funding, but Frogge says they can receive extra funding from investors, while those who own the land where charters are located benefit from public funds through tax credits.

Comparing charters and traditional school is difficult, she adds, because charter schools don’t have to serve every child and have lower numbers of English Language Learner students and special-needs children.

In addition, Frogge says she has received numerous complaints over the last 18 months about charter schools about “abusive practices” involving “cherry-picking” students or counseling poorly-performing students out of the school.

The other outlook

Metro Nashville has roughly 85,000 students overall, 8,112 of them in 27 charter schools, which are designed to operate with more freedom than traditional public schools in an effort to improve system performance.

Duncan, who served on the founding board of KIPP Academy before stepping down several years ago, says nine of the top 10-performing schools in Metro are charters.

He contends students who entered KIPP as fifth-graders in 2004 were doing math and reading on a second-grade level after five years in Metro’s traditional schools. Four years later, they were performing at grade level, and today 71 percent of them are attending college.

“Their lives have been saved,” he says.

Calling himself a “good-school advocate” as opposed to a charter school advocate, Duncan contends Pinkston is part of a group trying to “protect a monopoly” in Metro schools, one in which the focus is on maintaining a power base for adults rather than “focusing on children.”

He discounts Pinkston’s contention that he and others are trying to “charter-ize” Nashville schools, saying Pinkston continually spouts the same “lie” in an effort to sway public opinion.

On the other hand, Frogge says Pinkston is “an outspoken, vocal advocate for public schools. He’s not afraid of a fight, as we know.

“He’s worked in politics for decades, so he knows how to move a conversation. And he’s willing to stand up to those who are trying to shut down public education, and there really is a national movement going on right now that would destroy public education, which is a pillar of our democracy,” Frogge adds.

“Will has been willing to stand up to that movement, and he’s unafraid of those who would bully or intimidate school board members who don’t support their agenda.”

Battle brewing

The Metro School Board this year turned down four charter school applications, including two by KIPP Academy. Members cited a situation in which enough charter schools are in the pipeline already to send another 8,000 students to them in the next few years.

A relatively new state law, however, gives the Tennessee Board of Education authority to overturn local school board decisions on charter schools.

KIPP appealed the decision, and state education staff members were to hold a Sept. 30 hearing and send a recommendation to the Board of Education, which is expected to make a decision in late October whether to reverse the Metro board’s decision.

“That could trigger a legal fight because that law is constitutionally suspect,” Pinkston explains.

Metro also is considering whether to join the state’s other largest school systems and file suit against Tennessee over lack of funding.

Director search

Jilted by Williamson County Schools Director Mike Looney in its search to replace Jesse Register, the Metro School Board cut ties recently with search firm Hazard, Young, Atta and Associates and is opting to go with a community team made up of elected officials and education advocates.

Pinkston, who wanted to reduce the firm’s pay, in part because it didn’t net Looney, says the board gave up too much of its authority in the initial search, which he says Hazard turned into a “resume-intake operation.”

“As we reboot the process, we’re going to be a running a talent-recruitment operation,” Pinkston says, noting the board will do more recruiting rather than sit and wait for candidates. In addition, he adds, the board will use the mayor, vice mayor and community leaders as assets to attract a top director.

As with most other topics, Pinkston has some strong opinions about priorities the next director should take.

Those include:

  • A focus on pre-kindergarten expansion
  • Adoption of English Language Learner initiatives
  • Efforts to improve reading in early grades
  • Reduction of standardized testing time
  • Turnaround strategies to remove 14 Metro schools from Tennessee’s “priority list” for poor performance
  • Lobbying for more funding at the state level (Metro is ranked 54th of 67 urban school systems in per-pupil funding at $9,000)
  • Creation of a teacher recruitment and retention plan
  • Stopping unabated charter growth.

Charter schools are operating at an annual cost of $75 million this year, and that could roughly double by 2019 based on approval of charter applications, officials say.

A recent system audit backed up a board-commissioned report in 2014 that found new charters will cause a “negative fiscal impact,” mainly because new charters divert funds from the school system while fixed costs such as staffing, maintenance and technology remain the same.

In an essay on his proposals, Pinkston writes:

“To be sure, some charter schools are doing good work (as are some MNPS schools). But simple math tells us that we cannot sustain unabated growth of new schools of any type without systematically starving existing schools. Balancing new investments across multiple sectors and priorities is a matter of fairness and responsibility.”

All about attitude

Cooley says Pinkston has been unfairly made out as an “anti-charter” board member. Instead, he says, Pinkston wants to deploy a “strategy” for charters rather than approve each one that comes along.

Still, the debate appears to have driven Pinkston into a corner.

“It’s unfortunate that debate has taken on such a visceral tone,” Cooley adds.

Pinkston admits he could do a better job of framing his arguments.

“I think education debate stirs passion, and sometimes I probably take it too far with my words,” he says. “But at the end of the day, my heart is in the right place, and it’s passion for improvement and kids that is driving the conversation.”

If he’s making points based on facts but suffers on style, he can “own up to that” and try to improve, Pinkston explains.

And though school boards and other government bodies are accused of being dysfunctional, he says he believes that’s simply the byproduct of putting several people with different opinions in one room and asking for a consensus.

“But it’s probably the old newspaper reporter in me coming out,” he says.

“I just sort of say it like I see it, and that rubs people the wrong way sometimes.”

Sam Stockard can be reached sstockard44@gmail.com.