Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Tuesday that withholding $3.4 million from Metro Nashville Public Schools following its rejection of Great Hearts Academies’ charter proposal “was not a decision that anybody at the state takes any pleasure in.”
“But we also think that we are a state of laws,” Haslam added, as he stood next to House Speaker Beth Harwell, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “When state law is violated –– really on a decision not once but twice –– after proper warning from not only us as the state but also from the board’s own attorney, we felt like it was very important to act.”
Haslam, Huffman and Republican leaders, on hand at the Adventure Science Center Tuesday for a different press announcement, defended the state’s move to withhold $3.4 million in non-classroom, BEP funding as a simple matter of enforcing state law.
“We don’t do this with any sense of trying to use the state’s power in any way,” Haslam said. “But like another state law that the General Assembly passes, we’re responsible for enforcing that law, and that’s why we took this action.”
Haslam said the action is aimed “as much as possible” at ensuring the loss of funds doesn’t affect students. State officials say the $3.4 million is equal to Metro’s October portion of “administration costs” that come from BEP funds.
But in an MNPS statement, the local school district suggested the funds would affect children nonetheless.
“BEP is a funding formula and not a spending plan, so there are no funds earmarked for ‘administrative costs,’ the MNPS statement reads. “The BEP formula for non-classroom expenses includes utilities, student transportation, maintenance and other things that directly affect our 81,000 students and 5,000 classrooms.
“We do not yet have a plan on how we will respond to this disruptive mid-year cut.”
The Haslam’s administration move comes nearly one week after Phoenix-based Great Hearts announced  it would be abandoning its charter proposal for West Nashville after it met a fourth round of resistance from the Metro school board. The local board twice opted against approval — most recently, last Tuesday — despite a state board of education order to authorize.
As of Tuesday morning, Huffman and Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register still hadn’t talked to each other about the decision to withhold funds, Huffman said.
Huffman, whose support for Great Hearts can be traced back for months, alluded to a prior meeting following the local board’s Aug. 14 vote to defer Great Hearts’ charter application.
“We were quite clear about what the possible outcomes would be if the law was violated again,” Huffman said.
Haslam told reporters Tuesday that his administration “talked about certain things” when asked whether other options besides monetary punishment were considered. Neither he nor Huffman elaborated.
Metro school board members who voted against Great Hearts in a 5-4 vote last week objected to Haslam’s move.
“I acted legally and I did what I believed was right and fair for all children, not just a few children,” board member Amy Frogge said. “We did not act in defiance of the state but to ensure compliance with the written terms of the state mandate.
“Apparently, a few people at the top want to punish five of us who voted against Great Hearts and they decided to punish 80,000 children,” she said.
Mayor Karl Dean, a Great Hearts backer, called the state’s action the “predictable result” of the Metro board’s “refusal to obey the law.” Dean did not criticize the state’s action.
“Sadly, once again, it is the children who will suffer, not just from being denied another high quality educational choice but also from the state’s plan to withhold funds,” Dean said. “In the final analysis, this boils down to an issue of responsibility and accountability on the part of our schools.”
Great Hearts officials have said they are hopeful the state would take action to allow the charter organization to apply with a different “impartial charter authorizer.” Charter supporters have said they plan to push for legislation that would enable a new statewide charter authorizer that would effectively negate the role of local school boards.
Haslam didn’t rule out backing a statewide charter authorizer during the next legislative session.
“Prior to this, I don’t think there was a lot of political momentum around it,” Haslam said. “We’ll have to see how the General Assembly reacts to it this year.”
The Great Hearts dispute has turned into a partisan issue at the state legislature, with Republicans like Ramsey and Harwell defending the retraction of funding, and Democrats blasting the decision.
Harwell, who represents constituents from affluent Nashville neighborhoods that supported Great Hearts, said she’s “very disappointed” in the Metro school board’s actions.
“Largely, I’m hearing from the public that they want choice for their schools,” Harwell said. “This was one avenue of choice that they would like to have seen in West Nashville.”
Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart, however, hammered the withholding of funds from Metro, arguing that “until now” local districts had the autonomy to “decide for themselves” how to invest in charter schools.
“What a terrible precedent it is for the commissioner of education to now reach into Nashville and take tax dollars from Nashville citizens because he personally doesn’t agree with the elected representatives of the people,” Stewart said.
“Commissioner Huffman has shown that he is not really interested in being an administrator but is a radical zealot of often controversial education ideas and has consistently shown a complete indifference to the actual desires of the taxpayers who pay for the schools,” he said.