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.