School board extends offer to Register

If negotiations, background checks and visit to Chattanooga go well, he likely will be next director of Metro schools

Despite a seven-to-two school board vote resulting in his job offer, Hamilton County’s Jesse Register said on Saturday that he is “pleased” with the board’s decision and eager to quickly negotiate a contract.

If contract negotiations, background checks and a visit to his old district in Chattanooga go well, Register will likely be Nashville’s next director of public schools. He said he thinks January would be a good time to start work in Nashville.

“Obviously, the first step is to negotiate the contract. … I feel very comfortable that we can do that just in the matter of a week or two,” Register said in a interview Saturday evening. “I think I can develop a good working relationship with all the board members. … What’s important is having a vision of where we want to go and everyone pulling together to get there.”

Board chair David Fox spoke with Register by phone immediately after the votes were cast. Fox told Register was “pleased” to be offered the job. Though board members Ed Kindall and Gracie Porter cast votes against extending an offer to Register, both have stated publicly that they will support Register and believe he will do a good job. Fox said he considers these statements important.

“He was very pleased,” Fox said. “He’s hoping that we can come to terms on the contract quickly so he can get started. … I told him I thought he was going to have a very strong consensus of support from the board. He was very pleased with that.”

Register said Saturday that he recognizes board members must vote according to their consciences.

The fact that the vote was divided – rather than the unanimous decision recommended by search firm consultant Bill Attea – initially drew emotional responses from several board members, and a general lamenting of the divisions perceived to permeate the board and the community the board represents.

After the meeting, however, Attea and individual board members minimized the consequences of the divided vote, expressing instead the importance of unified board support for Register.

Register’s initial contract request is for a salary of $275,000, plus a $10,000 individual health insurance plan. The salary of former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia was $218,000 at the time of Garcia’s resignation, plus benefits, for a total package worth of about $250,000.

Fox and Register will negotiate a contract in the weeks ahead, with the help of Metro’s Legal Department. At the board’s request, Fox will ask Register to consider a total salary and benefits package close to Garcia’s $250,000 range, particularly in light of the current economic situation facing the district. Board members are also interested in negotiating a contract clause that releases the board from buying out Register’s contract in the event of a state takeover.

According to Attea, the final negotiation and hiring process often takes two to three weeks. But it’s likely that if all parties can come to agreement, Register could be at the helm of Metro schools as early as January.

The extension of an offer to Register followed a more harshly split elimination of finalist Doris McEwen. A five-to-four vote resulted in McEwen’s elimination, with Kindall, Porter, Joann Brannon and Sharon Gentry voting to eliminate Register rather than McEwen.

A third finalist, Santiago Wood, was eliminated earlier in the day. All board members except for Steve Glover voted to eliminate Wood from consideration.

Board members made their decisions at a special meeting Saturday. The discussions began with a reminder from the Mayor’s Office that Mayor Karl Dean would still like to see the board hire a short-term, one-year interim. Dean has met with all three finalists. Though he has said he will not comment on the individual candidates, all three finalists have made public their desire to be hired with a three- to four-year contract.

In a statement made after the board’s decision, Dean said he will “eagerly” support Register if a contract is signed. He also said he expects that Register will work to “reassure” parents of MNPS students with disabilities. The involvement of Register’s  former district in a large, autism-related lawsuit has raised significant concern from the local advocacy community.

“If Dr. Register enters into a contract with the Board, I will be eager to work with him to improve our schools. I'm going to keep working on education reform and doing whatever it takes for our schools to succeed,” Dean said in a written statement Saturday afternoon. “In my discussion with Dr. Register, he told me that given the opportunity to serve our school district he would work hard to reassure parents of special education students. If contracted by the Board, I expect he will follow through with that commitment and I am willing to help in any way possible.”

But Dean isn’t alone in his hope that Nashville’s next director of schools have a short-term contract, given the district’s financial situation and the current political instability. The results of negotiations between Fox and Register will likely be closely watched.

Register worked for 10 years as director of schools in Chattanooga’s Hamilton County school district. He is widely known for his work with the successful Benwood Initiative, which effectively transformed a number of struggling Chattanooga elementary schools.

For those who have closely watched the recent Tennessee Department of Education changes made at MNPS, Register’s name should be especially familiar. Many of the DOE’s changes were patterned after reforms made during Register’s long tenure, and several leaders brought in by the state to facilitate local reform are veterans of Register’s Chattanooga administration.

DOE leaders have made it clear that the hiring of a director should be completed by the board, and have not commented on individual candidates.

Register said Saturday that, pending a contract, he believes he’ll be able to get a “quick start” in working with the DOE and with administrators brought to Nashville by the state from Hamilton County Schools. Furthermore, Register added, his meeting with the mayor was “very good.”

“I’m very hopeful that we can build positive working relationships all the way around,” Register said. “Reaching on into the community, we’ve got to build partnerships to get the school system moving in the right direction quickly.”