The Metro school board will reconsider the charter application of Great Hearts Academies at its next meeting in September, but the board by then will include four new members whose positions on the dispute could be key.
District officials have demanded that Great Hearts first resubmit an acceptable diversity and transportation plan before consideration. For now, the quartet of recently elected board members — who won’t be sworn into office until Aug. 28 — is staying largely mum on the matter.
“I’ll have a lot to say at the meeting,” said new board member Amy Frogge, adding that she wants to research the issue further before commenting.
State and Metro officials confirmed to The City Paper that Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register and Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman met Wednesday to discuss the Metro board’s indefinite deferral of Great Hearts Academies from the previous day, action that seemingly defied a prior state order to authorize it. The Register-Huffman meeting lasted approximately 30 minutes.
Huffman has said state officials would “take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed.” But Gov. Bill Haslam has since backed off suggestions that the state could withhold funds from Metro if Great Hearts isn’t approved locally.
By Thursday afternoon, Metro Nashville Public Schools issued a statement that said the Phoenix-based Great Hearts’ proposal would appear on the board’s Sept. 11 meeting agenda. Register, in conjunction with outgoing school board chair Gracie Porter, set the agenda, said MNPS spokeswoman Meredith Libbey.
The school district has taken the position that the Metro school board Tuesday technically “took action,” just as the Tennessee State Board of Education on July 27 ordered it to do. The state order, in fact, commanded Metro “to approve” Great Hearts contingent on it adopting a diversity plan that “mirrors” the district’s diversity plan for choice school, hire licensed teachers and initially open just one of its originally planned five schools.
Metro has argued Great Hearts hasn’t addressed these three stipulations.
“The application will be reviewed again when Great Hearts Academies has submitted its transportation and teacher certification plans and its acknowledgement that the application is for one charter school,” according to an MNPS statement.
Complicating Metro’s position is the legal advice of its own attorney Mary Johnston, who advised the board Tuesday to approve Great Hearts, or else it would be violating state law.
“I have grave concern, as I outlined at our last board meeting, that the vote in the way that it came down, violated state law,” reiterated board member Michael Hayes, a Great Hearts supporter who voted against the deferral.
For now, Great Hearts officials haven’t indicated they would pursue legal action to settle the matter. “At this point, we remain hopeful that the Nashville public school board will comply with state law,” Great Hearts attorney Ross Booher said.
State officials had told The City Paper Wednesday the state could elect to withhold an unidentified amount of funds from Metro if it continues to violate state law by not authorizing Great Hearts’ proposal.
But Haslam, in an interview with WPLN in Clarksville Thursday, took back the threat: “Ultimately, we’ll have to think about what we do if Metro school board doesn’t go along with what the law is. That being said, threatening to withhold money, that’s not the business we’re in in the state. We’re in the business of educating children.”
If neither the state nor Great Hearts takes immediate action, the proposed West Nashville charter school’s fate could boil down once again to the nine-member Metro school board. Taking center stage will be the diversity plan of Great Hearts, which its officials contend is consistent with the district’s diversity plan for choice schools. Metro disagrees.
Three Great Hearts skeptics who voted to defer the proposal, Porter, Ed Kindall and Mark North, will no longer be serving on the board when the proposal is reconsidered in September. Great Hearts backer Kay Simmons will be gone as well.
In their places will be four new board members — Frogge, Will Pinkston Elissa Kim and Jill Speering, all elected earlier this month — who were each in attendance Tuesday watching Great Hearts deferral unfold. In the end, their votes could sway the board’s next move one direction or the other.
One of those board-members-to-be, Kim, received a sizeable amount of campaign contributions from affluent Great Hearts backers, including a $7,100 maximum contribution from the pro-charter PAC Great Public Schools.
Kim declined to comment via email. Speering, whose opponent Jarod DoLozier took an identical dollar amount from the pro-charter PAC, did not return messages seeking comment.
A wild card on the Great Hearts matter could be Pinkston, a former Gov. Phil Bredesen aide who previously served on the board of directors of Nashville Prep, a charter. Despite those credentials, Pinkston did not receive PAC dollars form Great Public Schools.
Pinkston told The City Paper Thursday that he would be reserving judgment on the state-Metro dispute for now. He said the district’s legal counsel would be briefing new board members on the matter next week.
Pinkston did offer a critique on Great Hearts: “Based on what I’ve seen and observed over the summer, I think Great Hearts handled their entry into this market about as poorly as any charter operator could have done it.”