After losing $3.4M, what legal avenues does MNPS have against state?

Monday, October 22, 2012 at 12:29am

If Metro Nashville’s school board decides to take the state to court for withholding millions in tax dollars from the district — a punishment for denying a charter school application — they could have a case.

The state’s laws on the subject are vague, and that alone may give the school board just enough of a peg to justify a lawsuit.

“Frankly, I hope they do sue. I think that the issues are not as clear as the commissioner of education would appear them to be,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association.

“The state, in a very heavy-handed way, decided to tell a local school board what’s best for their students. I think that’s a very horrible precedent to set,” he said.

Last month, officials announced the state would withhold $3.4 million of non-instructional funding from Metro Nashville Public Schools in retribution for the school board rejecting the charter school application of Great Hearts Academies, in defiance of orders from the state Board of Education to approve the new school.

MNPS’ rejection was part of a long-running feud with the Phoenix-based charter operator over opening a school in West Nashville, with critics voicing concerns the school would lack diversity and adequate transportation.

Speculation among education law insiders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is that the school board has a host of legal options if it chooses to drop Metro’s borrowed legal counsel and hire outside lawyers and file suit.

“It is unquestionable that the school board has yet to receive independent counsel,” said Jamie Hollin, a Nashville attorney and former member of the Metro Council.

Mayor Karl Dean had helped coordinate with state officials to assist Great Hearts’ charter school push, as revealed in The City Paper. His administration’s lawyers, at meetings to counsel MNPS, warned the district their charter school rejection would violate state law.

“When the mayor is on the other side, then it’s time to get a new lawyer,” he said.

The board is calling a special meeting Tuesday to discuss how to deal with the state’s reduction in funding, which came down last week despite ongoing talks between state Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Metro school board’s chairwoman, Cheryl Mayes.

One argument the school board could consider making is that the board never violated state law.

Tennessee law says the State Board of Education hears appeals to charter school rejections and can remand decisions back to the local school board with directions to OK the charter’s application. But in this case, the state board included a pair of contingencies that needed to be met first, such as addressing transportation concerns and produce a diversity plan to mirror the school districts.’

The local school board remained unimpressed with what Great Hearts had to offer on those two issues. Subsequently, both the outgoing and newly elected school board refused to approve the charter.

Metro can also argue the local school board was denied due process before the fine came down.

After the school board’s last rejection, the Department of Education levied what amounted to a $3.4 million fine without any hearing to determine if the law was indeed violated.

While the law does give the commissioner the power to punish school districts for violating state law, the school board could question how the state determined the amount an adequate penalty.

A press release following the state’s ultimate decision to fine the district hinted that the board may take up this argument.

“The $3.4 million reduction is significant and raises concerns about how the amount was determined and whether it is consistent with other penalties assessed by the state. Tennessee law does not address penalties in this situation,” read a statement from MNPS.

State officials say they aren’t worried about a lawsuit quite yet.

“We haven’t heard anything about potential litigation at this point. That’s not something that we’re thinking about right now,” said Kate Shellnutt, a Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman.

Huffman promised to share the money it is keeping from Metro by distributing it with the rest of the state’s school districts. But for now, that money isn’t going anywhere, according to the department, which said those dollars would be distributed at the end of the budget year, which runs until June.


12 Comments on this post:

By: Ask01 on 10/22/12 at 3:34

I suspect the board has little legal standing.

They did defy the state, and like a recalcitrant student who refuses to follow the rules, no matter how asinine, they must pay the price.

I'm sure Mayor Dean will do nothing to help, since he was in league with the state on this issue, so the board can probably expect to be hung out to dry.

Perhaps the board members should be required to make up the shortfall themselves from their own resources.

By: Loner on 10/22/12 at 7:10

The tea-baggers hijacked the TN Legislature and Governor's mansion...this is the shameful result.

The state announced the "good reasons" for the cuts, but we all know the unpublished real reasons.

The real reasons for this punitive action are the result of Metro's failed attempt to pass an ordinance that required its sub-contractors to prove that they were not discriminating against minorities; that plan was met with absolute contempt at the state level.

To make matters "worse", Metro put the kibosh to the Governpr's mean-spirited plan to use Charter Schools to get around the Civil Rights laws...these actions infuriated the now they are taking it out on the children of Metro Nashville.

You folks need to clean house at the state level....GOP troglodytes have hijacked your state's government.

By: pswindle on 10/22/12 at 8:41

This is what happens when the GOP has contol of all the branches of government. If I don't get my way, you will be punished, big time. The GOP wants to do away with public education, and the charter schools are just the beginning. If we can educate only the select few, we can have a two class system in this country; rich and poor. That way everything will be controlled by the the Mitt Romneys' of the world. Right now, he is moving another company from IL to China. He owns 51% of Bain and he made millions off of Bain last year. He is a snake and part of the low life.

By: localboy on 10/22/12 at 1:03

Rural counties have experienced these tactics from the state (although on a much smaller scale) for quite some time...welcome back to earth.

By: BigPapa on 10/23/12 at 7:23

You guys crack me up. Is there any issue you wont nationalize?
"There's a pot hole on my street!! Damn that Obama!!!" "My car tags are expensive. I hate George Bush!!!" "Gas prices are too high... I hate Romney!"

By: RustyACE on 10/23/12 at 9:13

Let's do the math on this transaction.

1. $3,400,000 dividied by 81,000 students equals $41.97 per student.
2. Divided 180 days of school equals 23 cents per student per day.

School Board says if you don't approve this school, we will pull this funding from you and give it to other students.

They didn't approve the school, funding pulled.

Give parents choices where to send their kids and they will choose the best schools. Now you have left over schools that the state can either step in and fix, or close down and build better schools.

Give parents the tools to choose the best teachers, instead of shielding them and protecting the incompetent teachers. We TAX payers pay a lot of money for the children of TN to get educated, we should have strict accountability of every dollar that we spend and who we spend it on.

I want the BEST teachers to get the lion's share of the money, the worst teachers to be unemployed. The ones in the middle, have a choide to improve, or do something else. It's that simple.


By: BigPapa on 10/23/12 at 9:51

Rusty the only thing that's important in Metro is whether there are enough white kids sitting next to black kids. Whether either of them actually learn anything isn't even a consideration.

By: jonw on 10/23/12 at 11:09

So - - - the school board should hire outside lawyers & waste another million to continue their social engineering experiment?

By: EDUNITED on 10/24/12 at 5:59

If MNPS were succeeding, then the School Board has a point. But MNPS doesn't work well...for whatever reason kids aren't getting educated. The "innovation" that Great Hearts represents doesn't work for a School Board locked in parochialism and the past. The Metro School Board's motto seems to be "Forward with the Status Quo."
Ed vanVoorhees

By: govskeptic on 10/24/12 at 6:09

You can bet the Tennessee Teachers Association will support this appeal
especially since it is almost gone from more and more districts within the
state. This Union and their supporting ones along with several Legislators
have been a major cause for the slide in education and the number of
ever larger growing number of unmotivated and incompetent teachers that
remain in the classrooms.

By: East37206 on 10/24/12 at 10:25

If Ms. Zelinski can only muster up Sir Jamie Hollin as the 'counter voice' for her pieces, I fear she will not be around long.

What important title does Sir Hollin hold in Nashville these days, other than uninformed loud mouth or temper tantrum throwing FORMER council member?

Does the pro sue-the-state faction really want ignoramous Hollin to be their spokesperson?

By: rickmuz on 10/24/12 at 11:42

@ask101: "they must pay the price."

They DON'T pay the price... you and I as taxpayers pay the price. MNPS will make up that $3.4 Million through us.