School board members split on pursuing legal action against state

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 10:14pm

Members of the Metro school board aren’t sure if they are willing to stomach a drawn-out legal battle over millions of dollars the state has withheld from the school district.

At a specially called school board meeting, the members appeared split on whether to sue the state over what amounted to a $3.4 million fine for refusing to approve Great Hearts Academies charter, or to cut the district’s losses and move on.

“Over the last few months we have been deeply involved in a controversy that has taken the focus off our children and placed it in the middle of an adult tug-of-war,” said new school board chair Cheryl Mayes who called out Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman for not meeting the board halfway after weeks of negotiation.

“It is not our responsibility to continue to go after these funds and demand that they be returned,” she said. "It is time for us to do what we do best. It is time for us to get back to the business of educating our children."

In violation of an order from the Tennessee State Board of Education, the school board last month refused to approve the charter application for Phoenix-based Great Hearts, a charter school looking to open its first institution in West Nashville.

The Metro school board’s refusal is arguably a violation of state law, which indicates the state board can override local board denials of a charter school. The Metro board is standing by its decision, contending the State Board of Education’s two contingencies outlined in the order to resolve transportation and diversity concerns were never met.

Leading the charge to legally challenge the state was newly elected board member Amy Frogge, an attorney. She argued that she sees no option other than trying to get the district’s money back from the state, but she stressed to reporters after the meeting that she would be satisfied with whatever the board decides so long as it meets with outside counsel first.

“This has been a very trying two months for us. I think we’ve been placed in a really impossible position as a board, and I think we are all tired,” she said. “But my opinion is that we need to make sure that our students are not punished improperly by the state, and we need to be good stewards of the resources that we do have.”

Will Pinkston, who is also new to the school board, said the body has already spent too much energy on the charter school and risks further putting itself at odds with the state.

“What the state giveth, the state can taketh away, if not in funding, then certainly in statute,” said Pinkston, a former high-ranking officer in former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.

Pinkston warned that legislation is now in the works to create a statewide panel that could approve charter school applications, allowing them to circumvent school districts like MNPS.

“We’ve got to get back to business and get this relationship back on track,” he said. “Ordinarily, I like to fight. But this is a situation where I just have to stop and ask what’s in the best interest of the system.”

Most members seemed open to revisiting negotiations with the Department of Education or seeking other alternatives to recoup the funding without going to court.

Due to higher than expected tax collections, the district can operate without the $3.4 million right now without having to consider staff reductions, said Director of Schools Jesse Register. He said money would have been invested in technology this year.

Huffman had warned in August that the state would come down on MNPS for rejecting Great Hearts, a charter school operation that a City Paper review of state records revealed Huffman and Mayor Karl Dean were pushing for behind the scenes.

It wasn’t until the newly elected school board, with four new members, narrowly voted to deny the charter application in September, however, that Huffman and the Haslam administration announced it would withhold $3.4 million in “administrative” basic education programming funds from the district.

The Metro school board is scheduled to meet Nov. 13 and is expected to decide on whether or not to pursue litigation.

12 Comments on this post:

By: Ask01 on 10/24/12 at 5:03

Oh, why not!?!?

Let's go for it. The best outcome would be the state humbled before the city of Nashville.

The worst could be losing, costing even more money, and the state passing legislation which would render local school boards useless, installing a state body as the supreme authority for all educational issues statewide.

After further consideration, the latter will probably come to pass regardless as a response to MNPS defying the all powerful state.

Oh well, I can't wait for the next episode in this David and Goliath saga.

By: govskeptic on 10/24/12 at 5:57

"The State humbled before the city of Nashville" is such a foolish statement.
Board member Frogge, a young attorney herself, suggest the Board hire
new council in a fight with the state, but wisely the new Charwoman suggest
the Board move on without an appeal. An appeal will surely give the State
Legislature motive to remove local boards from even having authority to
decide who does and does not get a Charter School license.

By: conservarage on 10/24/12 at 6:54

sounded a lot like some of the school board members think they'll lose, so they came up with this 'get back to educating children' story. what a bunch of pantywaists. if you think the state is wrong, fight.

By: i.am.a.taxpayer on 10/24/12 at 7:24

Does anybody even read those irrelevant and stupid adds that "huangugg" posts? I wish that one and others could get back on point.

Maybe the should let me money go and just stop fighting about it. It is obvious that we well-to-do tried to appear well-meaning, in getting a West End charter school but most people realized that was not the best way to go. Put charter schools in areas that are performing poorly and let them demonstrate the level of difference they can make for the public school system (which remains to be seen).

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 10/24/12 at 8:02

I agree with Ms. Frogge. Consult outside council and see what the best options are. Such a heavy handed action for one charter school. We do have other charters and other options here. This school was not the only one turned down.

By: JohnGalt on 10/24/12 at 8:03

Lawyer and freshman board member Froggie wants to sue. Who saw that coming?

By: David_S on 10/24/12 at 10:33

Ironically, the chief concern voiced by the board when rejecting great hearts was that they weren't promising to be "racially diverse" enough. So basically, this school may not have helped minorities as much as the school board would have liked, but would not have actually HURT anyone. And now they're willing to not only waste the 3.4 million the state is withholding, but even more money in legal fees, all for the sake of rejecting a charter school that would have done NO harm, but may not have helped out minorities as much as the board wanted. Wow. Talk about screwed up priorities.

By: hattrick3 on 10/24/12 at 2:11

A lawyer wants to sue? I'm shocked, just shocked.

By: Ask01 on 10/24/12 at 5:46

A foolish statement?

More of an improbable statement, I would say.

Perhaps, however, you don't believe that would be the most desirable outcome.

Considering all the scenarios which end with Nashville losing more money, and possible control over the Metro school system, I believe the best possible outcome would be, should the city sue, them coming out victorious, thereby humbling the state.

The chance of that coming to pass is very unlikely, though.

Should our school board actually file a suit, I believe the end result would be unpleasant for Nashville on many levels.

I hope you are better able to comprehend what I was trying to get across after simplifying the subject.

By: pswindle on 10/25/12 at 8:56

This shows that the State is not interesting in helping children. To hold that much money is being mean and hateful, but what do you expect from a governor that is so out of touch that anything anyone does in his administration goes untouched.

By: kellyfretz on 10/26/12 at 8:17

Please sign my petition, we can't let them get away with this!

http://www.change.org/petitions/tennessee-department-of-education-stop-them-from-withholding-3-4-million-in-funding

Thank you!

By: govskeptic on 10/27/12 at 8:03

The Board is always split by some different counts from time to time.
There are those that truly want to improve education and grades, and
then those that are more interested in political correctness, some new
untested expensive program that will create miracles, and finally to
do nothing more than show and draw a check much higher than most
school boards pay their members. Equal expenditure for all students
gives much greater rewards to the students than does the many
wasted years attempting to work out diversity.