Advice for Megan Barry on building a better Nashville

by Wood Caldwell

(This article originally appeared in the Tennessean on Oct. 28, 2015)

Mayor Megan Barry has assumed leadership of our great city at an auspicious time. Nashville is thriving.

But it became evident during the mayoral race that our booming economy brings with it growing pains that need to be addressed by the new mayor. I believe Mayor Barry is prepared to do exactly that. Here is some unsolicited advice for our new mayor and council on how to frame key issues.

The “growing pains” issues most often mentioned during the mayoral race were education, transportation and affordable housing. However, I’m not sure that these really are three separate issues, as we can’t solve one without addressing all of them.

Great public schools are vital to our city’s success, and this is a top priority for many citizens, according to a recent poll by Vanderbilt University. Yet, 2014 TCAP scores show that the number of Metro Nashville Public Schools performing at the state’s lowest academic level has doubled in two years.

Because of our underperforming public schools, when their children reach school age, many young Nashvillians move to surrounding counties where the schools are better, taking their talents and tax dollars with them. So, besides just being the right thing to do, improving Nashville’s public schools would help ensure that the young people fueling our city’s success stay here.

Having a quality public school system would also help to address the affordable housing issue, because improving schools throughout Nashville would make the surrounding neighborhoods — where there is affordable housing — more attractive places to live.

The fact is, affordable housing is an issue primarily in neighborhoods like East Nashville, Sylvan Park, The Nations, the Gulch, 12South, Melrose and other “hip” parts of town. You’ll find plenty of affordable places to live in other parts of Nashville. However, these affordable neighborhoods also tend to have the poorest-performing public schools, and many lack access to public transportation. If we fix schools and transportation citywide, these parts of town become much more attractive. The good news is that most of the charter schools in Nashville — which have proved to outperform traditional district schools, on average — are in these “less hip” parts of town. So, if the school board will let it happen, this problem is already on the way to being fixed.

Another way to make affordable neighborhoods more attractive is to develop an innovative transportation plan that combines the benefits of living in the central city with the affordability of living outside of it. And to create such a plan we, again, need to look at education/transportation/affordable housing as a single issue.

Consider that, in the 2014-15 fiscal year, we spent $36 million on Metro Schools’ transportation department and $70 million on MTA. By combining these two programs, we immediately increase the total public transportation budget by more than 50 percent.

Consolidating the Metro Schools transportation department with MTA would not only save millions of dollars by eliminating redundancies, it would also allow the school board to focus on the one thing they were elected to deal with — educating our children. The recent fracas over one board member going rogue on the issue of school buses is proof of how a noneducation issue like transportation can distract the board from its true purpose.

The bottom line: All the pieces of the puzzle must be in place to deal with the important issues that Nashville faces today and to prepare for the growth that we will be facing in the coming years.

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Wood Caldwell is managing principal of Southeast Venture, a diversified commercial real estate company. He writes about Middle Tennessee commercial real estate issues once a month for The Tennessean. Reach him at wcaldwell@southeastventure.com.

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