The Metro school board took a pass for now on fighting the state of Tennessee over the $3.4 million state officials withheld from the district following the Great Hearts Academies saga.
But in the wake of discussion over that long-running charter school issue, the board soon turned the charter spotlight on Smithson Craighead Middle School, voting 8-1 to close the school — open since 2009 — at the end of the year.
Before a standing-room-only crowd at the Tuesday evening meeting, board members debated offering Smithson Craighead a probationary period, but in the end followed recommendations from district officials to close the school for ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.
While the school had made improvements over the last three years, the charter school still lagged behind average MNPS schools, according to district records.
Students across the district averaged 38.9 percent proficient in math, 41.5 percent in reading language arts and 44.9 percent in science. Proficiency among students from Smithson Craighead were 7.5 percent, 18 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively.
Deciding now to close the school allows parents to apply to other choice schools across the district during the “optional schools” application period that runs through Nov. 30 if they don’t want to go back to their zoned schools.
The Tennessee Charter Schools Association agreed with the closure in a statement released shortly after the vote.
“We support the decision of MNPS and believe the Smithson Craighead students deserve a better school option,” said Matt Throckmorton, the association’s executive director. “We applaud the hard work of the contributors to this charter school as well as the MNPS board for this difficult decision.”
The board’s decision on Smithson Craighead came immediately after discussion of the Great Hearts dilemma, during which the board shot down a motion to hire independent legal counsel after identifying a potential conflict of interest with its current counsel. The board, however, left itself open to consider re-evaluating it’s legal counsel going forward at next month’s meeting.
“I feel like we’re in a 12-chapter book. The final pages are being written at last, so we’ll see what happens next,” said Will Pinkston, a board member.
The issue is an outgrowth of a months-long debate over the Great Hearts charter school application. The school board repeatedly rejected the application citing concerns with diversity issues. Two of the rejections were in apparent defiance of state orders to OK the application, prompting the state to withhold $3.4 million in funding and to distribute it to other schools across the state at the end of the year.
The last lawyer the board metwith about whether to pursue legal action against the state for withholding funds was Chuck Cagle, an attorney who lobbies for the Shelby County Board of Education and the Association of Independent/Municipal School Districts — groups that could benefit from the extra funds.
Cagle also represents Career Education Association, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and Pearson Education Inc., a company that does millions of dollars in business with the state of Tennessee annually.
Also, to meet with MNPS, Cagle is paid through Metro Nashville’s legal department, according to MNPS spokeswoman Olivia Brown, and Mayor Karl Dean was a vocal supporter of Great Heart’s charter school application.
Amy Frogge, a board member pushing to take the battle to court, indicated interest in discussing if the school board should change who it regularlyuses as legal counsel in the future, which could include a possible second look at suing the Tennessee Department of Education.
Last month, members signaled that they may not have the stomach to wage a legal war with the state to get that money back, although some voices on the board, including Frogge, said it was worth it.
The board also decided to allow Director of Schools Jesse Register to talk to officials at Great Hearts Academies about what went wrong with this year’s application process and how to reopen the door if the Phoenix-based charter wants to try again in Nashville.
Great Hearts has indicated it’s interested in lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill to instead approve a statewide charter authority so it can sidestep Metro’s school board.