If Metro Nashville’s school board decides to take the state to court for withholding millions in tax dollars from the district — a punishment for denying a charter school application — they could have a case.
The state’s laws on the subject are vague, and that alone may give the school board just enough of a peg to justify a lawsuit.
“Frankly, I hope they do sue. I think that the issues are not as clear as the commissioner of education would appear them to be,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association.
“The state, in a very heavy-handed way, decided to tell a local school board what’s best for their students. I think that’s a very horrible precedent to set,” he said.
Last month, officials announced the state would withhold $3.4 million of non-instructional funding from Metro Nashville Public Schools in retribution for the school board rejecting the charter school application of Great Hearts Academies, in defiance of orders from the state Board of Education to approve the new school.
MNPS’ rejection was part of a long-running feud with the Phoenix-based charter operator over opening a school in West Nashville, with critics voicing concerns the school would lack diversity and adequate transportation.
Speculation among education law insiders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is that the school board has a host of legal options if it chooses to drop Metro’s borrowed legal counsel and hire outside lawyers and file suit.
“It is unquestionable that the school board has yet to receive independent counsel,” said Jamie Hollin, a Nashville attorney and former member of the Metro Council.
Mayor Karl Dean had helped coordinate with state officials to assist Great Hearts’ charter school push, as revealed in The City Paper. His administration’s lawyers, at meetings to counsel MNPS, warned the district their charter school rejection would violate state law.
“When the mayor is on the other side, then it’s time to get a new lawyer,” he said.
The board is calling a special meeting Tuesday to discuss how to deal with the state’s reduction in funding, which came down last week despite ongoing talks between state Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Metro school board’s chairwoman, Cheryl Mayes.
One argument the school board could consider making is that the board never violated state law.
Tennessee law says the State Board of Education hears appeals to charter school rejections and can remand decisions back to the local school board with directions to OK the charter’s application. But in this case, the state board included a pair of contingencies that needed to be met first, such as addressing transportation concerns and produce a diversity plan to mirror the school districts.’
The local school board remained unimpressed with what Great Hearts had to offer on those two issues. Subsequently, both the outgoing and newly elected school board refused to approve the charter.
Metro can also argue the local school board was denied due process before the fine came down.
After the school board’s last rejection, the Department of Education levied what amounted to a $3.4 million fine without any hearing to determine if the law was indeed violated.
While the law does give the commissioner the power to punish school districts for violating state law, the school board could question how the state determined the amount an adequate penalty.
A press release following the state’s ultimate decision to fine the district hinted that the board may take up this argument.
“The $3.4 million reduction is significant and raises concerns about how the amount was determined and whether it is consistent with other penalties assessed by the state. Tennessee law does not address penalties in this situation,” read a statement from MNPS.
State officials say they aren’t worried about a lawsuit quite yet.
“We haven’t heard anything about potential litigation at this point. That’s not something that we’re thinking about right now,” said Kate Shellnutt, a Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman.
Huffman promised to share the money it is keeping from Metro by distributing it with the rest of the state’s school districts. But for now, that money isn’t going anywhere, according to the department, which said those dollars would be distributed at the end of the budget year, which runs until June.