Philly schools chief defends $450K consultant who surrendered teaching license

Current and former Nashville school officials say Shawn Joseph’s tenure precipitated a “morale crisis.”

Tony Watlington Sr. sits at a table

Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat Philadelphia

Amid dissent over his push for the district to hire a controversial education consultant at a cost of nearly half a million dollars, new Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. said the move will enable a speedy transition and beef up a “lean” administrative staff.

In a Wednesday call with reporters, Watlington said hiring Joseph and Associates, which is led by former Nashville district superintendent Shawn Joseph, will ensure he can focus on making Philadelphia “the fastest improving urban school district in the nation.” But some have raised concerns about Joseph’s $450,000 price tag, which will cover roughly a year’s work but exceeds Watlington’s own annual salary of $340,000.

Joseph’s tenure leading Nashville from 2016 to 2019 has also raised eyebrows. It was marked by a string of disputes, including claims that he ignored and mishandled allegations of sexual harassment against a middle school principal, as well as complaints that he attempted to award no-bid contracts. Joseph agreed to surrender his teaching license in 2019 because he failed to report 12 teacher misconduct cases to the state within 30 days, as required by state rules, according to a Tennessee Board of Education official. Joseph subsequently reapplied for and regained the license in 2021, but then let it expire.

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Joseph reached a buy-out agreement with the Nashville school board before his four-year contract was up. The terms of that agreement included a provision that in general, neither Joseph nor the board would file a lawsuit or claim against the other, according to the Tennessean. Joseph told Chalkbeat June 21 that he left his Nashville post because he and the board did not agree on how to reach “a continued focus on achieving equity and excellence” in the district.

Joseph told Chalkbeat Thursday that people tried to damage his image but that he remains proud of his work in Nashville.

“It’s been three years since I’ve been in Nashville and I’ve been working to train and prepare urban superintendents like Dr. Watlington,” he said. “Sometimes wisdom comes with pain. As you learn things, you’re able to impart that knowledge onto people.”

On Wednesday, Watlington defended his choice. “Are there other consultants out there who could be considered? Absolutely,” Watlington said. “The timeframe warranted me to make some recommendations and some steps sooner rather than later, so that I can hit the ground running on day one.”

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But giving a contract to Joseph means less money for priorities like school safety, buildings, and outdated curriculum, said Renee Brown, a longtime Philadelphia education activist who has sent five children to schools in the city. She also said that as someone from outside Philadelphia, Joseph can’t fully grasp the district’s unique challenges.

“I’m very displeased,” Brown said.

The Philadelphia Board of Education agreed to hire Joseph at Watlington’s request at a board meeting in late May with almost no discussion. (Watlington officially took over the district on June 16.) The board told Chalkbeat that the decision to hire Joseph’s firm — which is charged with helping Watlington develop a long-term plan for improving the district — represented “best practice.”

Current and former Nashville school officials blasted Philadelphia’s decision to hire his consulting firm and issued warnings about the legacy Joseph left in the city.

Fran Bush, a Nashville school board member, highlighted accusations that Joseph improperly steered public money to a firm he had previously done business with.

“What I have to say is they’ve got to be very careful,” said Bush, referring to Philadelphia officials.

A record peppered with complaints, ill will

Watlington and Joseph have a professional experience in common: the Urban Superintendents Academy at Howard University. The academy is designed for educators who want to take on leadership roles in urban areas with a focus on academic performance and leading underrepresented and diverse populations.

Watlington is a graduate of the academy, while Joseph was one of its co-directors. When he was a co-director, Joseph introduced the academy’s 2021 cohort that included Watlington.

Joseph and Associates will help Watlington develop a five-year strategic plan for the district. That plan is due by the end of next May. The firm is also charged with assembling a transition team to help Watlington assess the district’s ability to meet its overall vision for schools, which is known as “goals and guardrails.”

Joseph led the 86,000-student Nashville district from 2016 to 2019. Local media outlets reported that Joseph won praise for his focus on students of color while he led the district. Earlier this month, former Nashville board member Will Pinkston expressed support for Joseph, telling Chalkbeat that he “was trying to do exactly the right thing and, frankly, exactly what the board asked him to do.”

But allegations about his leadership decisions dogged his time in the city.

For example, the Nashville district paid out claims resulting from the harassment complaints and lawsuits during Joseph’s tenure.

And Joseph reportedly pushed the district to sign two no-bid contracts worth $1.8 million with Performance Matters — a company in Maryland with which he had previously done business. Emails obtained by a Nashville TV station showed that Joseph began discussing a potential deal with the firm two weeks before he officially started as superintendent in July 2016.

In 2018, Nashville officials expressed disappointment that the number of district schools identified by Tennessee as most in need of support and improvement nearly doubled from 11 to 21 (the state adopted a new accountability system in 2018). Joseph said this demonstrated that certain schools needed more resources.

Jill Speering, who was the vice-chair of the Nashville board for two of the three years Joseph was the district’s top official, said she was “appalled” that he had been hired to consult in Philadelphia, “given his failed leadership in Nashville where the board had to buy out his contract in order to save the district further embarrassment.”

Another former board member, Amy Frogge, said Joseph’s practices precipitated an “employee morale crisis.”

There’s no public indication that Philadelphia district leaders are reconsidering Joseph’s contract.

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia school board again defended the decision to hire Joseph, saying in a statement that in a “large and complex” district, “transition support is intended to provide an even deeper understanding of the individuals, families, and communities this district serves.”

The board did not address the controversy surrounding its decision to hire him.

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