Metro school board defies state order, defers Great Hearts charter

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 7:36am

Defying a state order, the Metro Nashville Board of Education refused to grant charter authorization of Great Hearts Academies Tuesday, perhaps opening itself up to a legal challenge if the Phoenix-based charter organization so chooses.

Tuesday marked the final meeting for four of the board’s nine members, and the quartet went out with a bang. In the end, the board voted 7-2 to indefinitely defer Great Hearts’ plan for a West Nashville charter school, arguing the proposal simply has too many lingering holes on ensuring diversity to get its blessing.

“I don’t want to saddle the board with any ill-feelings from the state, and so I’m cautious to just make the state board and state department of education angry,” outgoing board member Mark North told his colleagues.

“On the other hand, my conscience says I need to take a stand,” he added.

In what might ultimately be nothing more than a symbolic gesture of local autonomy, the school board deferred voting on Great Hearts’ charter proposal until it submits a diversity plan to the district that eases the board’s concerns.

“Approved in its present form, it opens the floodgates for an unlimited number of racially and ethnically isolated charter schools here in Nashville,” said board member Ed Kindall, whose 27-year tenure on the board ended Tuesday.

At one point, North suggested having seven school board members exit the building to prevent a quorum, ending the meeting and halting Great Hearts for the time being. Instead, the group of seven simply disregarded state charter law.

The Tennessee Board of Education on July 27 re-directed Great Hearts — following the group’s appeal of two prior Metro rejections — back to the local board for approval at its next meeting. The state ordered the local board authorize Great Hearts contingent on it adopting a diversity plan that “mirrors” the district’s diversity plan for choice school, hire licensed teachers and open initially just one of its originally planned five schools.

“The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal,” state law says regarding charter appeals.

Great Hearts still has state law on its side, but after Tuesday’s meeting, it’s unclear whether final charter authorization would come willingly from Metro. State law stipulates the local board must be the final authorizers during an appeals process.

Metro attorney Mary Johnston, interpreting state law, had advised the school board to approve Great Hearts, suggesting the charter organization could have grounds for a suit if it voted against it.

Dannelle Walker, legal counsel for the state board of education, told The City Paper that after the higher board in July remanded Great Hearts’ proposal back to Metro, the state no longer has any involvement with the charter authorization process. She said Great Hearts could now file legal action for final approval.

“Great Hearts now has a cause of action because the school board has decided not to follow the law and do what the statute says should have happened,” Walker said.

Ross Booher, Great Hearts’ attorney, who at times unsuccessfully tried to weigh in as the board debated his client’s application, said he needed to speak to Great Hearts officials before commenting on potential legal action. “We were hopeful that publicly elected officials would obey the requirements of state law,” he said.

Board members voting to defer Great Hearts’ authorization were the same seven who voted against it twice before: North, board chair Gracie Porter, Ed Kindall, Anna Shepherd, JoAnn Brannon, Sharon Gentry and Cheryl Mayes.

Voting against the deferral were West Nashville board members Michael Hayes and Kay Simmons, Great Hearts' supporters.

Tuesday’s meeting marked the latest — and unexpected — twist in the months-long saga of Great Hearts, a charter organization that arrived in Nashville following an ardent push from West Nashville parents looking for more options beyond struggling zoned schools, academic magnets with long wait lists and expensive private schools.

Great Hearts has attracted a vocal contingent of politically connected supporters, including Mayor Karl Dean who urged the state board to overturn Metro’s prior Great Hearts denials.

Kindall, an African-American board member raised in segregated Nashville, made the motion to defer the proposal indefinitely. He delivered a 10-minute speech in which he said he’s troubled Metro is still having a debate over diversity 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

“The organization [Great Hearts] is consciously and purposely limiting transportation with full knowledge that this will create a nearly all white, affluent school in the West Nashville area,” Kindall said.

He called out Great Hearts’ affluent backers who made major financial plays during the recently concluded school board elections: “Don’t use money to stack boards. Use it to line up buses.”

Kindall also questioned whether the state board of education and its director Gary Nixon sufficiently studied Great Hearts’ proposal. The state board overturned Metro in July after just 18 minutes of public debate, he pointed out.

Great Hearts officials have categorically rejected accusations of segregation, arguing its proposed location off White Bridge Road is socio-economically diverse. Moreover, officials contend Great Hearts’ busing plan surpasses even the district’s transportation plan for choice schools.

Hayes, who represents parts of Green Hills, warned against creating an “incredibly slippery slope” by not approving a charter that the state — “one of our largest funding sources” — clearly ordered to open.

But it was the state’s directive that seemed to irk some board members, with some making calls for local governance. Mayes said many school systems across the country use Metro as a “model” for authorizing charters.

“It’s a bit concerning to me that our own state board of education does not believe that we are doing our job,” Mayes said.

With Great Hearts’ proposal now deferred, any school board member could elect to bring it back to the table at a future meeting. But its final authorization — barring a court order — would be up to a new board.

In attendance for the entire meeting Tuesday were the board’s four new members: Amy Frogge, Elissa Kim, Will Pinkston and Jill Speering.

19 Comments on this post:

By: vankent on 8/15/12 at 6:17

Duly elected local school boards should have control over local schools. That's a basic concept of democracy and open government.

By: govskeptic on 8/15/12 at 7:53

So, our outgoing board members want to make their departing move
with a lawsuit that will cost the city taxpayers plenty, which will be
lost in the end. Elected local school boards are great, but they are
not the absolutely last word on education at the local level, thank goodness!

By: KENW on 8/15/12 at 7:58

Once again Metro School Board fights to keep the poor performance standards they've accepted for Nashville Public Schools. Your system is broken yet you fight for failure. Pitiful.

By: Rocket99 on 8/15/12 at 8:23

They didn't deny it, just deferred it. Now, the new school board will get a chance to act on it. When Great Hearts submits their diversity plan all may be fine.

Considering what the Board did, not sure the company could sue as such. The Board is wanting their diversity plan, which I'm guessing they didn't properly submit. The company could try & get a judge to make the Board follow the ruling of the State. The judge could also say they have to comply with Metro's request.

I guess one question is, did the State Board follow proper procedure? After all the hoopla over the mosque in the Boro, everyone needs to make extra sure they properly cross all T's and dot all I's.

By: Rocket99 on 8/15/12 at 8:24

KENW, is there any proof that the charter schools will bring up student performance? Please share the facts.

By: Specter47 on 8/15/12 at 8:34

You go, Great Hearts! Hold to the authorization given you by the state, open a great school, produce the expected results and make them all eat their words. I'm glad that when you faced a prejudiced, biased group like the departing school board, you had the state behind you to overcome the board's predisposition. They prefer the low performance of the traditional schools, even when they lose control of them to the state. They will never learn.

By: hvillenutcase on 8/15/12 at 8:55

vanKent, You do realize that the Tennessee State Board of Education has had final say on schools for years yes?

By: Magnum on 8/15/12 at 9:11

Rocket, is there any proof that they won't bring up student performance? What we know is that the school system is failing and that status quo thinking isn't producing favorable results. My guess is that the board's real issue is that the charter school(s) will take it's best students leaving the traditional schools to appear as though they have declined even further while making the charter school administrators look like rock stars.

By: pswindle on 8/15/12 at 9:53

Good for the School Board. They stood up for their rights as an elected body of government.

By: RWinLA on 8/15/12 at 10:04

Interesting that in this political climate in which so many Tennesseans are so interested in "local control" and the like we are having a debate about whether a local school district can govern its schools without being superseded by unelected state bureaucrats. The hypocrisy from state Republicans is overwhelming. How much money has Great Hearts Academies given the governor?

By: dogmrb on 8/15/12 at 10:43

@LoL: if you are referring to the changes in District 9 a few years ago, you might want to check who voted for the change and who against. I think your anger is misplaced. I know District 8, 9 have voted for changes, charters etc. for at least 4 years but others either were not on that Board or voted in the negative.

By: bobteague on 8/15/12 at 11:07

There are NO guarantees with charter schools! 2 of Nashville's Charter schools, KIPP Academy and Smithson-Craighead Middle, are now on the state's list of underachieving schools. We have closed charter schools that have not performed.

With transportation provided, 9-10 hours of instruction for <15 students per classroom by more than 1 effective teacher (certified in TN by law), plus before and after school care and/or English Language instruction, we CAN all help close the achievement gap for all students below their grade level at any school. The wide majority of Nashville's public schools are at or above charter, private, parochial, and independent schools on state standards and several MNPS schools are nationally ranked for outstanding academic performance.

One issue is whether the state board followed process and made its decision with accurate information. Another one is that local boards have the ONLY authority to grant charters, and still another is that the state has authority over the local board, so it's uncertain what happens if the local board defers or defies the state board.

Great Heart's application was denied 2 times by MBOE because it lacked an adequate transportation plan (must match MNPS), any diversity plan (must match MNPS), would not hire certified teachers (certification is required by TN law) and insisted on full approval for 5 charter schools (MBOE approves only one at a time). These are the same contingencies that the state board required MBOE to approve with the Great Hearts twice rejected application. Great Hearts refuses to address these in their application, saying NOW that they have already been approved by the state board.

Phoenix Arizona is NOT Nashville and only 1 in 5 Great Heart schools there has a diverse population and none matches MNPS for transportation or diversity. So, why doesn't Great Hearts just submit matching plans and open their first school. Why is Great Hearts pushing ahead, only with political influence, and disregarding the needs and desires for the students, families and citizens in Nashville? For the last time Great Hearts, why not add the comprehensive plans needed on your application so you CAN BE welcomed in Nashville?

By: spadafino on 8/15/12 at 11:10

Interesting. Our state government is all about nullification when it's in their interest but not when it's in someone else's. They have no problem with trying to nullify Obamacare, yet threaten to stop funding Nashville children's education when our school board nullifies the State Board of Education. I for one was glad to see the MNPS board's largely symbolic gesture. It undoubtedly will not stand, but at least it was a reminder that it is no small matter to overturn the decisions of a duly-elected local board of education.

By: DavidSchwetty on 8/15/12 at 11:11

Lack of Diversity? What a joke. The area the proposed Great Hearts Academy would draw from is quite diverse. The area includes neigborhoods north of Charlotte ave, parts of Sylvan Heights, and Belle Meade. Those are three pretty different neighborhoods. To see for your self:

Let's talk about the current level of diversity of charter schools. Does anyone have the current racial composition fo the existing charter schools. I'm guessing it's well over 75% African American. That's hardly diversity, it is however, not white which is apparently the primary characteristic of diversity these days.

By: ohplease on 8/15/12 at 11:12

We all so want to find the magic solution for public schools. I've seen lots of trends come and go. For example, mega high schools, open classrooms, for-profit companies taking over public schools. Not the solution. Right now it's charter schools. Nationally, they do about as well as regular public schools. If some answers come from their reforms, great. Lots of good things are happening in public schools, too.

By: CitizensWin on 8/15/12 at 1:21

There is no magical solution.

'Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.'

By: Anonymous2010 on 8/15/12 at 3:31

School board members must either be licensed school administrators or licensed K-12 school teachers. They must be licensed educational experts or scholars for the benefit of the students. How many current school board members have a school administration license or a teaching license?

By: govskeptic on 8/15/12 at 8:31

School board members only have to be elected. Pity the day when the
board is made up of only Educators. Between the TEA and their supporters
that do serve on the school boards has been one of the biggest problems
over the last 40 yrs.

By: pswindle on 8/16/12 at 10:46

The state is showing their true side: bully. Do as I say or I'll take your candy away. Local school Boards are elected and should be able to run their districts. If not, do away with local boards. It is one way or the other, not both. I keep forgetting that money talks.