skip to content



Nahville Metro departments not sure about English Only’s impact

Monday, December 29, 2008

Voters unsure of how they will vote on the English Only referendum at the Jan. 22 special election might be interested to find out that Metro departments don't know how the charter amendment proposal would tangibly change the way they do business.

From Metro Water to Public Works to Metro Nashville Public Schools, department after department has told The City Paper that the English Only proposal is too vaguely worded to predict its effect.

Even the leader of Nashville English First, the group pushing the charter amendment, said there could be unintended consequences if the proposal passes on Jan. 22.

Bellevue Councilman and the proposal's author Eric Crafton acknowledged as much, but added there is a safeguard in place to insulate Metro if certain situations arise. The amendment includes a qualifier that Metro Council can make exceptions for public health and safety.

"Obviously once this passes there may be unintended consequences for Metro government and that's why we've left a provision in there, and quite frankly no one will print this, but the charter amendment says nobody has a right to services in another language," Crafton said. "It establishes English as a baseline, but what that also says is if we want to do things in other languages… we can if Council wants to make exceptions."

But various Metro departments offering services in other languages, most often Spanish, say they don't know whether the English Only amendment would alter those services or not.

For instance, Metro Water mails out information fliers in both English and Spanish to customers on how to deal with sewer back-ups, according to public information officer Sonia Harvat. It remains unclear whether mailing those fliers would be violating the provisions in the charter, if the English Only were to pass, Harvat said.

"We would look to guidance from the Metro Legal Department," Harvat said, echoing the same response several other Metro departments gave.

Various programs protected by federal law

Some of the most prominent instances where Metro government offers services in various languages are in the Police Department, the Health Department, the Fire Department and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Those services are protected by federal laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which states entities receiving federal funds must offer its services equally to everyone.

"Without being able to [speak in other languages], we would not be able to offer services like screening for sexually transmitted diseases or tuberculosis," Health Department spokesman Brian Todd said. "We talked quite a bit about this particular bill and we would be omitted because it is health and safety."

LaWanna Shelton, executive director of English Language Learning (ELL) for Metro Nashville Public Schools, told The City Paper that the details of English Only ramifications on public schools would need to be sorted out by Metro Legal. Educators will follow the guidelines given and comply with all applicable laws, Shelton said.

"If it passes, tell us what we can and can't do, and we're going to keep educating kids," Shelton said. "These are adult issues. Leave them with adults. We are here to educate kids, and we follow guidelines."

But there are certain services that federal laws mandate for children. Laws associated with federal funding are "very clear," she said, in stating that parents have the right to receive and communicate information in a language comprehensible to them.

Other applicable federal laws are connected to lawsuits. Federal law states that every child needs access to core curriculum, which has been "widely interpreted" in terms of children with limited English proficiency, Shelton said.

MNPS kids are, for the most part, already educated in English, Shelton said. True bilingual education is primarily not offered - with more than 130 languages represented at MNPS, the district doesn't have the resources for this, Shelton said.

Students are educated with "structured English immersion," she said.

The one exception is Glendale Elementary, a special program offering Spanish- and English-language immersion for all Glendale students. The program is popular with parents of both Spanish- and English-speaking students.

It shouldn't be forgotten too that all Tennessee students are required to complete two years of foreign language education to complete their high school diplomas.

Some services may be in jeopardy

Crafton said proponents of the charter amendment view the proposal as a unifying force.

"Here is the whole issue in a nutshell - we believe a community is more united under a common language," Crafton said.

But according to Metro Police spokesman Don Aaron, the ability to reach out to Nashville's Hispanic community in other languages, particularly Spanish, has helped significantly with community outreach.

Police runs a program called El Protector, which uses Spanish-speaking officers to do proactive outreach and education on key issues like how to access emergency services. El Protector also educates the Nashville immigrant community on drunk driving and domestic violence laws.

El Protector has become successful enough that it will be recognized as an exemplary program by the Vera Institute of Justice at the beginning of the year, according to Aaron.

It's against that backdrop that Police are left wondering whether El Protector would violate the Metro Charter if English Only were to pass.

"The program is working and it would be a serious disadvantage to the city as a whole for any charter amendment to disband it," Aaron said.

And El Protector isn't the only program that could be on shaky ground if English Only is voted in on Jan. 22. Metro Director of Law Sue Cain said any bilingual Metro employee could be prohibited from speaking in another language to a non-English speaking citizen.

Cain said signs posted around Nashville in other languages, as in Metro parks, in addition to information associated with the Metro Transit Authority bus services, could be prohibited if the amendment were to pass.

Asked what he anticipates the tangible effect of English Only would be, Crafton pointed out that those who use interpreter services for Metro departments should be charged a fee to foot the bill.

According to Council attorney Jon Cooper, Metro has a contract with Language Line services to provide phone interpreter services in 172 languages on an as-needed basis. At a rate of $1.15 per minute, Metro had a bill of just $80,000 through late October, Cooper said.

Crafton said those who receive those interpreter services should be required to pay. But on whether Parks signs or Public Works informational mailings about trash and recycling pick-up should no longer be sent out in other languages, Crafton said those issues could be covered on a case-by-case basis.

Although the proposal includes a provision for Council to make specific exceptions, Aaron said there was a concern about the lag time between when the proposal could pass on Jan. 22 and when Council takes action to exempt specific Metro services.

"If it does pass, the Police Department will be immediately seeking guidance from what we can do and not do," Aaron said.

Pro Bono and legal aid attorney resources - Pro Bono Net