Members of the Metro school board aren’t sure if they are willing to stomach a drawn-out legal battle over millions of dollars the state has withheld from the school district.
At a specially called school board meeting, the members appeared split on whether to sue the state over what amounted to a $3.4 million fine for refusing to approve Great Hearts Academies charter, or to cut the district’s losses and move on.
“Over the last few months we have been deeply involved in a controversy that has taken the focus off our children and placed it in the middle of an adult tug-of-war,” said new school board chair Cheryl Mayes who called out Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman for not meeting the board halfway after weeks of negotiation.
“It is not our responsibility to continue to go after these funds and demand that they be returned,” she said. "It is time for us to do what we do best. It is time for us to get back to the business of educating our children."
In violation of an order from the Tennessee State Board of Education, the school board last month refused to approve the charter application for Phoenix-based Great Hearts, a charter school looking to open its first institution in West Nashville.
The Metro school board’s refusal is arguably a violation of state law, which indicates the state board can override local board denials of a charter school. The Metro board is standing by its decision, contending the State Board of Education’s two contingencies outlined in the order to resolve transportation and diversity concerns were never met.
Leading the charge to legally challenge the state was newly elected board member Amy Frogge, an attorney. She argued that she sees no option other than trying to get the district’s money back from the state, but she stressed to reporters after the meeting that she would be satisfied with whatever the board decides so long as it meets with outside counsel first.
“This has been a very trying two months for us. I think we’ve been placed in a really impossible position as a board, and I think we are all tired,” she said. “But my opinion is that we need to make sure that our students are not punished improperly by the state, and we need to be good stewards of the resources that we do have.”
Will Pinkston, who is also new to the school board, said the body has already spent too much energy on the charter school and risks further putting itself at odds with the state.
“What the state giveth, the state can taketh away, if not in funding, then certainly in statute,” said Pinkston, a former high-ranking officer in former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.
Pinkston warned that legislation is now in the works to create a statewide panel that could approve charter school applications, allowing them to circumvent school districts like MNPS.
“We’ve got to get back to business and get this relationship back on track,” he said. “Ordinarily, I like to fight. But this is a situation where I just have to stop and ask what’s in the best interest of the system.”
Most members seemed open to revisiting negotiations with the Department of Education or seeking other alternatives to recoup the funding without going to court.
Due to higher than expected tax collections, the district can operate without the $3.4 million right now without having to consider staff reductions, said Director of Schools Jesse Register. He said money would have been invested in technology this year.
Huffman had warned in August that the state would come down on MNPS for rejecting Great Hearts, a charter school operation that a City Paper review of state records revealed Huffman and Mayor Karl Dean were pushing for behind the scenes.
It wasn’t until the newly elected school board, with four new members, narrowly voted to deny the charter application in September, however, that Huffman and the Haslam administration announced it would withhold $3.4 million in “administrative” basic education programming funds from the district.
The Metro school board is scheduled to meet Nov. 13 and is expected to decide on whether or not to pursue litigation.