Eight minutes into the Metro school board’s May 29 meeting came an email exchange between top state education officials. The board had just acted swiftly to reject Great Hearts Academies’ charter school proposal for Nashville — and Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and his upper brass were keeping tabs from afar.
“Apparently being denied as I write this,” Stephen Smith, the department’s assistant commissioner of Policy and Legislation, fired off in an email.
Huffman, the recipient, replied within the minute. He assumed this would happen: “Bad move by MNPS. School has a strong track record of success and parents want it here.”
Prompting the exchange was the Metro board’s first denial of Phoenix-based Great Hearts — an action that would set off a contentious battle this summer between the Metro board and the charter organization’s supporters over the group’s commitment to racial diversity. Events would eventually evolve into a Metro-versus-state clash. Yet even before Great Hearts responded to Metro’s rejections by appealing to the Tennessee State Board of Education, emails show that behind the scenes, Huffman was already supporting the charter group’s plans for a West Nashville school.
In fact, on the night of the first Metro rejection, Huffman asked whether it would be possible for Great Hearts to expedite its state board appeal, moving it up to June instead of waiting until the board’s July meeting. “Hey shd [sic] someone make sure GH [Great Hearts] is appealing quickly to state bd?” Huffman wrote to Chris Barbic, superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District, which oversees the state’s lowest-performing schools. “They have a June 22 meeting ...”
In the Great Hearts case, Huffman wasn’t merely an observer. He contemplated how the charter group should best proceed with its appeal. He wondered why the local chamber of commerce wasn’t involved. He coordinated with Great Hearts officials. He watched in dismay over the course of the summer as the Metro school board on multiple occasions balked at approving Great Hearts. And after the board denied Great Hearts and KIPP Nashville (a separate charter that it later approved) on May 29, Huffman relayed disappointment to Gov. Bill Haslam the next morning.
“Not sure how each school will handle the appeals process, but I find it somewhat remarkable that Metro rejected two of the very best charters in the country in one meeting,” Huffman wrote to Haslam and the governor’s top aides, Mark Cate and Will Cromer. “Bad for kids and for the community.”
Huffman, the former Teach for America executive whom Haslam hired as his education commissioner in 2011, will certainly be watching when the Metro school board convenes Tuesday and reconsiders Great Hearts’ charter application one month after it refused to comply with a state order to approve it. In July, following Great Hearts’ appeal, the state board of education had remanded the application back to the Metro board for authorization in August, but an unsatisfied board nonetheless deferred the matter to this week.
By failing to grant Great Hearts the final go-ahead for its planned 2014 opening, Metro is operating in violation of state law, the education commissioner has asserted.
Emails The City Paper reviewed through the Tennessee Public Records Act, however, show the state’s discontent with the Metro school board on the Great Hearts matter began well before the local board defied any order. The Tennessee Department of Education provided The City Paper public emails from only the previous 90 days despite the paper’s request for a more expansive time frame. Education officials maintained the state’s email system “deletes” emails after a three-month period.
Huffman, who serves at the pleasure of the governor, has never publicly announced support for Great Hearts, yet he was clearly in its corner. On the Sunday before the school board would reject Great Hearts for a second time on June 26, Huffman considered but ultimately rejected having Haslam himself call Great Hearts officials to encourage the charter group to move forward.
“Puts the gov [sic] in an awkward position,” Huffman wrote to Barbic. “They might still say no, and the gov’s office wasn’t thrilled with my previously intervening in local issues.
“The thing is, he wd [sic] do it if I asked,” Huffman continued. “But puts him in a funny spot.”
By this point, Huffman had already facilitated a July 26 meeting to discuss Great Hearts’ next move, a gathering that took place just hours before Great Hearts’ revised application would go before the Metro board for second consideration. The meeting site: the office of Mayor Karl Dean, also a Great Hearts backer. In attendance, among others, were Huffman, Dean, Barbic, Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote, Great Hearts officials Dan Scoggin and Peter Bezanson, and Bill DeLoache, a wealthy Nashville investor and one of the state’s leading charter school proponents.
DeLoache recounted details of the meeting in an email to Kevin Hall, president and CEO of the Charter Growth Fund. The email, copied to Huffman and Dean, suggests Huffman talked to Great Hearts officials about appealing to the state even before the charter organization had publicly declared its intention to do so. In fact, the group’s application was still navigating its way through the local board’s authorization process.
“Most of the discussion was around the idea of GH [Great Hearts] appealing to the state and then opening school #1 in 2014 with 5 charters already in hand (whether or not one charter is approved tonight),” DeLoache wrote to Hall, describing the June 26 morning meeting.
Emails show DeLoache, long known as an unofficial education adviser to Dean, served as a resource for Huffman, as well. After the Metro board denied Great Hearts in May, DeLoache told Huffman he hoped its rejection might “provide an opportunity to highlight to the Governor” the need to push for a statewide charter school authorizer during the 2013 legislative session. (A statewide charter authorizer would effectively supersede and therefore negate authority of local charter authorizers such as Metro.)
“I’ve already pestered him on this subject in the past, and I don’t know his current thinking,” DeLoache wrote to Huffman.
Huffman responded: “I don’t know where he would come out but agree that it is worth discussing.”
In a subsequent email, Huffman said approving a statewide authorizer in 2013 would be a “long climb in the [state] legislature.”
DeLoache also alerted Huffman to statements that recently elected Metro school board member Will Pinkston made on the campaign trail. DeLoache referred to Pinkston, a former Gov. Phil Bredesen aide, as a “seasoned political operative destined to be very influential.” In the email, he attached a video clip of Pinkston speaking at a candidates’ forum in which Pinkston argued Nashville was moving “too far, too fast” on the charter school front.
Huffman, in a return email, called the video clip “a little disheartening.”
After the school board on June 26 rejected Great Hearts for a second time, Scoggin, Great Hearts’ CEO, communicated via email with Huffman to schedule a time to discuss the group’s upcoming appeal. Great Hearts would formally make its appeal with the state on July 5.
On the morning of July 27, the state board of education finally had its say. Huffman sat next to its nine members as they deliberated the fate of Great Hearts. After 18 minutes of discussion, they unanimously voted to overturn Metro’s Great Hearts decision, remanding the application back to the local level.
“Great Hearts just approved unanimously,” Huffman wrote at 10:55 a.m. to Deputy Education Commissioner Kathleen Airhart, shortly after the decision came down.
Airhart responded: “Glad to hear. I found us some more charter possibilities. Will connect them to Chris [Barbic].”
Of course, the Great Hearts battle was far from over. In an unprecedented move, the Metro board on Aug. 14 bucked the state’s wishes, voting to defer — not approve — Great Hearts. Predictably, the move angered state officials.
Alexia Poe, Haslam’s director of communications, emailed Huffman a potential response from the state that night: “It isn’t acceptable for metro to disregard state law and we will begin discussions with them this week to work toward an acceptable solution. ...”
Huffman responded, “I was watching the transcript live. They knew they were violating the law, and did it anyway. So I think we have to say something strong.”
The next morning, the Department of Education would release a statement saying Metro’s school system was operating in violation of state law. The state would take “appropriate action” to ensure the law is followed, the statement read.
That day, state board of education attorney Dannelle Walker told The City Paper and other media that the state could opt to withhold funds in response to Metro’s defiance on Great Hearts.
Huffman, however, advised his department’s communications director to simply refer reporters to the official statement. “I don’t want us quoted talking abt [sic] money,” he wrote.
Also on the morning of Aug. 15, Huffman summoned Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register and the district’s Alan Coverstone for a 2 p.m. meeting to “discuss the next steps on Great Hearts.” He advised Register to bring an attorney. The superintendent obliged.
In deferring Great Hearts, Metro board members argued that the charter school still hadn’t showed how it would address three state-mandated contingencies. One of these was the requirement that Great Hearts adopt a diversity plan that mirrors Metro’s diversity plan for choice schools. Great Hearts backers have argued that its plan to ensure diversity, in fact, goes above and beyond Metro’s commitment. Meanwhile, some have questioned whether Metro actually has such a plan.
Three days after Metro’s vote to defer Great Hearts, Huffman emailed Register and asked to see Metro’s diversity plan for choice schools. In an open records request the previous day, Aug. 16, Great Hearts’ attorney Ross Booher sought the same document.