Mayor Karl Dean’s letter asking the Tennessee State Board of Education to approve Great Hearts Academies’ Nashville charter proposal — and undo a decision of the local school board in his government — has raised eyebrows among some Metro officials.
“I’m surprised that the mayor would send a letter asking the state to overturn a decision made by our local school board,” At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard told The City Paper.
Maynard, who opposes the controversial Great Hearts charter proposal, said the council doesn’t want the “state coming in and meddling in our business, and overturning policies that we pass,” a principle of local autonomy he said should extend to the school board.
Leading up to Great Hearts’ Tuesday appeal hearing before the state board of education, Dean addressed a letter to the Gov. Bill Haslam-appointed board that made it clear where he stands on the issue.
“I am writing to let you know my strong support for the charter application of Great Hearts Academies and to ask you to overturn the District Board’s denial of that application,” Dean wrote in the July 16 letter.
The mayor added that the Phoenix-based charter group, which has applied for an initial charter in West Nashville and five across the county, is “just the type of high-quality choice that many Nashville families seek.”
After raising concerns about Great Hearts’ commitment to diversity, the Metro school board voted to reject its proposal in May before denying it again on appeal last month. Great Hearts has now taken its fight to the state board, which is expected to vote on its appeal on July 27.
Dean, the head of Metro, has put himself in the unique spot of opposing action of a Metro board and entity, one that receives city dollars and legal counsel from the Metro Department of Law. Unlike other commissions that are mayoral-appointed, however, Davidson County citizens elect the nine-member school board.
At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine said Dean’s letter “strikes me as odd.”
“The folks at the [Metro] school board are being so conscientious in terms of licensing charter schools,” Steine said. “It strikes me as very odd that those of us that are elected to other offices don’t trust their process. I find it very strange.
“I would hope the folks of Great Hearts would continue to work with our school board to put together a proposal that meets their criteria, instead of this running around them,” Steine added.
Dean, in recent years, has opposed moves by the Republican-dominated state legislature to intervene in Metro affairs. After in 2011 Dean signed into law a bill that required Metro contractors to extend nondiscrimination polices to gay, lesbian and transgender workers, the General Assembly moved swiftly to nullify it.
A year later, Dean supported state legislation to undo that nullification. In a March letter, he argued the local law “was an important expression” of Nashville being a welcoming place. He also said local ordinances deserve the respect of the state.
“Now is not the time to abandon our belief in local government,” he wrote.
In recommending the denial of Great Hearts, Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register’s administration has criticized what it dubs “locational diversity” — the idea of placing its five schools in different parts of the county to achieve racial and socioeconomic diversity. Skeptical of Great Hearts’ busing plan, Metro school board member Ed Kindall has applied a different word to the proposal: segregation.
Great Hearts officials have rejected that assertion, arguing the 1.5-mile circumference around its proposed first school on White Bridge Road is racially diverse. Dean, meanwhile, believes the charter organization has satisfied diversity issues.
“While the district board’s denial of Great Hearts’ application seems to be centered on diversity concerns, Great Hearts has shown a clear commitment to diversity by offering to open five schools in different areas of Nashville,” Dean wrote earlier this week.
Kindall, who has served on the Metro board since the mid-1980s, also used the word “odd” to describe the mayor’s letter to the state board.
“When you think about it, we represent the city on the board of education, and of course, he’s the leader of the city,” he said. “It’s sort of like asking the state to overturn something the council did.
“In all the time I’ve been a part of the board, I haven’t seen the mayor get involved so much in an issue like this,” Kindall said.