Nashville mayoral candidates Freddie O’Connell and Alice Rolli faced off for a debate on public education Thursday night, with just over a week to go until early voting in the runoff election kicks off.
The topics ranged widely from public education funding to school safety.
The hourlong debate was hosted by Opportunity Nashville, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that advocates for equity in education across the city. It was moderated by political analyst Pat Nolan and veteran news anchor Nicky Yates, and broadcast live on Nashville Public Television.
Nolan hosts the weekly political talk show “Inside Politics” on NewsChannel5+ and pens the weekly Capitol View Commentary column. Yates recently retired after a three-decade run as a NewsChannel5 anchor, which included her longstanding news segment, School Patrol.
The debate’s organizers invited Metro Nashville Public Schools stakeholders such as former and current students, parents and teachers to submit questions, alongside community members, some of which were asked throughout the night.
Here are three takeaways from the debate.
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The topic of school safety wove into several of the questions and answers throughout the night. In the wake of the deadly Covenant School shooting in Nashville this spring, the issue has often come to the forefront of discussions. Nolan asked each candidate what they would do to increase the safety and security of Nashville’s schools.
Rolli pointed to the special legislative session on public safety and mental health that begins Monday, and legislation Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, plans to propose to fund safety equipment for schools. She also praised the existing measures that help fund school resource officers on every public school campus. She said she supports increasing officer presence in schools.
“I’m also fully supportive of the governor’s call in the special session to get smarter about how we can separate people that are having a mental health crisis from firearms temporarily,” Rolli said. “I wish that we could unilaterally disarm. We cannot, so we have to operate in the world that we’re in.”
O’Connell said he feels confident in the plans Nashville schools already have in place, including funding he helped pass as a Metro Council member for officers in every middle and high school, and additions like ballistic glass and other safety upgrades. He stopped short of saying officers should be deployed to elementary schools a point of contention between state and local leaders. As the father of two school-age daughters, he said he feels generally safe sending his kids to their school because of the safety plans already in place.
“I think it’s important to make sure that we focus on those plans at a leadership level, in partnership between the district and police, so we don’t leave our teachers feeling like they have to be our first responders,” O’Connell said.
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Public school funding
Yates cited a 50% increase in per pupil spending in MNPS over the last decade. She asked if the candidates feel Nashville’s public schools are underfunded, and if so, what they think adequate funding looks like. If they feel schools are adequately funded, they had a chance to explain their reasoning.
O’Connell had the first response. He applauded Mayor John Cooper’s move to raise teacher pay and the Metro Council’s move to boost staff pay across MNPS. He said per-pupil spending levels are a key part of overall strategy for school funding, and that it stands in stark contrast with what private school students may receive.
“Our ability to maintain that funding is under attack in three different ways from the state of Tennessee: through education savings accounts, which specifically try to disenroll our public schools and jeopardize further state funding levels, from state-authorized charters, which have literally not been approved by our local school board, and through changes in state funding formulas, which are starting to disadvantage us.”
Rolli took a different approach, saying it’s time to take a step back on how the $1.2 billion MNPS budget is being spent. She said the current level of $16,245 spent per pupil is more than what she pays for her children who are in parochial school.
“I know it’s not apples to apples, but I am saying it is a substantial amount of money,” Rolli said, calling the work of Miami-Dade County Public Schools a “shining light” in managing a growing, expensive area and properly funding schools. “They spent less dollars per child and they moved them to the school site and … nearly every dollar is spent at the school site, and I think we’ve got to get there.”
Nolan mapped out public school options in Nashville including zoned, out-of-zone, magnet, charter and virtual schools, then asked what role school choice would play in each candidate’s public education policy.
Rolli said school choice is vital to retaining families in the MNPS system, citing data that shows a drop-off of about 8,000 enrollments in recent years. Earlier in the debate, she talked about a charter school and its high literacy levels, suggesting they should move away from an “us and them” mentality and find ways to scale up successful methods.
“Parents are their child’s first and most important teacher,” she said. “I believe that parents should have a choice in where their kids go to school. No one’s child should be made to go to an underperforming school.”
O’Connell emphasized the open enrollment process at MNPS, which allows parents to apply for schools outside their zone. He said he uses it for his own children.
“It’s wonderful how many options Metro Schools provides students and families for different kinds of curricula,” O’Connell said. “It’s incredible that in our traditional public schools you can find Montessori curricula, paideia curricula, you can find arts programs that are incredible at the Nashville School of the Arts.”
The candidates also answered questions about educational equity and literacy, youth mental health, food stability and affordable housing for kids, expanding Pre-K options and early childhood education, among others.
Watch the full debate for yourself