Between high-stakes elections, an epic brawl over a charter school and a never-ending battle with state education officials, the Metro Nashville school board at the center of the city’s politics this year.
Much of the intrigue began during the summer election season when 17 people ran to fill five school board seats. Special interest groups such as the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the local teachers union and school choice organizations opened their wallets to support their favorites. All told, more than $400,000 flowed into the board elections, rivaling that of state legislative contests.
But no single group cleaned house. In West Nashville, attorney and parent Amy Frogge, funded by around $20,000, beat out a school choice-backed competitor who had raised more than $112,000, mainly from business interests. In East Nashville, Teach for America executive Elissa Kim raised some $85,000 and used it to win out over then-Chairwoman Gracie Porter, who had pulled in about $20,000.
In less pricey races, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s political confidant Will Pinkston also landed on the board to represent the Glencliff and Overton clusters, as did retired teacher Jill Speering in Madison. Incumbent Sharon Gentry won reelection after being redrawn into the same district as longtime member Ed Kindall in North Nashville.
While candidates were out campaigning, the sitting school board was in a battle of its own. Despite an initial recommendation to approve, the outgoing school board twice refused to OK a charter application for Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based charter school operator looking to open the first of five institutions in affluent West Nashville. School board members feared it would lack diversity, and students from low-income backgrounds would lack access due to a lack of a transportation plan.
What would happen next would set off a firestorm.
Behind the scenes, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman traded emails with Great Hearts executives and top state officials to devise a winning strategy for the charter school’s approval. Mayor Karl Dean met with Huffman and charter officials to work out a plan while also emailing the State Board of Education, urging the group to overturn MNPS’s charter rejection.
Great Hearts appealed the school district’s rejection of its charter to the State Board of Education which, in a peculiar order, directed MNPS to approve the charter, contingent on Great Hearts addressing the issues the school district had with diversity and transportation.
The school board then voted twice to reject Great Hearts’ application — once at the last meeting of the old school board and again at the first meeting with newly elected members.
Frustrated that the Metro school board didn’t see the writing on the wall, Huffman and Gov. Bill Haslam agreed to withhold $3.4 million from the district in what boiled down to MNPS’ October allocation of administrative funds from the state.
Frogge, an attorney by practice, led the charge for the school district to sue the state for the money, or at least hire its own lawyer instead of using attorneys employed by Mayor Karl Dean in Metro Nashville’s law office.
Suffering from Great Hearts fatigue, the board ultimately voted to give the lawsuit up by voting down Frogge’s motions to meet with outside counsel.
But the fight has only just begun.
Although high-ranking school officials say they’re still trying to work out a deal with the state to get that money back, the drama of the last year has inspired the Republican-led legislature to fire back and write new laws that would make it easier for charter schools to win approval.
Great Hearts withdrew its application in Nashville saying it would seek approval again only after the state gives charters like theirs an option to circumvent the local school board and apply to the state to open their school. That’s an idea Republicans on Capitol Hill are now looking into.
Republicans say they see the school board’s refusal to approve the charter — even after being mandated by the State Board of Education — as intentionally snubbing state law. GOP House Speaker Beth Harwell, who lives in southern Davidson County, said MNPS’s Great Hearts rejection makes the controversial idea of giving students state-funded scholarships to attend the private school of their parents’ choice — more commonly called vouchers — that much more palatable next year.