Nashville board renews schools chief's contract

Nashville board renews schools chief's contract

May 26th, 2011 by The Tennessean in News

By Julie Hubbard, The Tennessean

Jesse Register's Tuesday started with handling power outages at 10 schools and ended with applauding Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School's graduates.

And, in between, he attended a school board meeting in which members voted on a four-year extension to his contract as Metro Nashville Public Schools' top administrator.

Register, 64, routinely works 10-hour days - or longer - but rarely mentions them. The former Hamilton County Schools superintendent doesn't talk much about his work on the Tennessee Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee, responsible for creating the method to judge teacher performance statewide, or how he flew to Toronto this month to tour a science-focused high school and bring ideas home.

But he's impressed school board members enough to renew his contract this month instead of waiting until its June 2012 expiration, in spite of warnings from a few city councilmen that they should wait for the district's latest test scores to come out.

"He's very unassuming. He's not a hey-look-at-me kind of person," District 4 school board member Anna Shepherd said. "But he is very insightful and always has his finger on the pulse to know what the school system should look like."

Register has demonstrated a pattern of falling in line with state reform initiatives early on, she said. He avoided a takeover of Cameron Middle School by the state's Achievement School District, established to turn around lowest-achieving schools. He already had a plan for a charter school to step in and manage Cameron.

Register garnered $12 million in federal grants to revamp magnet schools to attract more diversity and has offered students more choices about which schools they want to attend, other officials said.

"It's a vote of confidence," Shepherd said. "We want him to stay, and it sends a message to him and the community that we're pleased with him."

Register resigned as school superintendent in Hamilton County in 2006, a year before his contract with the school system expired. At the time, he said he resigned early to avoid becoming a political topic during upcoming school board elections. He had been in the position for nearly 10 years, and was the first superintendent of the newly merged Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools system.

In March, the Metro Nashville board rated Register a 4.56 out of possible 5 points on his evaluation.

3 sought delay

The new contract will be finalized in the coming weeks and probably will raise Register's $260,000 annual salary and provide for continued payments on the lease, insurance and fuel for his 2009 Ford Explorer, BlackBerry phone expenses, retirement and at least 75 percent of his medical insurance costs. It would expire in June 2015.

But on Monday, three Metro city council members wrote a letter asking the school board to hold off on renewing Register's contract, saying they should wait until standardized test scores are released this summer to weigh whether the district has made progress. The district has struggled for years to meet national performance benchmarks and frequently missed them.

Register was hired in January 2009 after former director Pedro Garcia's exit before his contract expired. Board members faced some backlash for not seeking community input on Register's hire, said Marc Hill, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce's chief education officer.

"When he came to town and took the position, he had to reach out and form new relationships. ... He had to start from scratch," Hill said. "To his credit, he's done that relatively quickly."

More work ahead

In two years, Register launched a data warehouse where principals and central office administrators use computer software to see who's absent, who's in trouble or falling behind academically. But with 27 percent of Metro graduates qualifying for the state's HOPE scholarships by scoring a 21 on the ACT, more work needs to be done, Hill said.

Register said there are no quick fixes for Metro's achievement issues. "We've established a good foundation, and we're going to keep working with that," he said.

Public and school libraries now partner to offer Metro students more book selections. The mayor's office and Metro schools have worked together to curb truancy with the Metro Student Attendance Center and are working together on ASSET, a program that would tie teacher pay to effectiveness, said Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

"From day one, (Register) has agreed that the status quo isn't working and has been willing to embrace innovative ideas," Dean said.

Parents and principals hope Register will stay on.

"He came to my school when it caught fire, and it was Thanksgiving weekend," said Martin Luther King Magnet Principal Schunn Turner. "He helped get the rooms repaired in record speed."

A few years ago, the district's parent advisory council was about 20 parents who met monthly to complain, but Register helped restore it to an active group of more than 150 members, said chairwoman Erica Lanier. They weigh in on school calendars, new bullying policies and ways to make other parents feel welcome.

"The first step he took was giving parents an equal voice," she said. "He reached out to every single one of his principals to submit names and contact information for two strong parent leaders willing to serve on PAC. That had never been done."

Contact Tennessean staff writer Julie Hubbard at 615-726-5964.