Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is rejecting a call by the Metro Nashville school board seeking to put him on the spot to discuss a controversial bill allowing the state to OK charters in the Nashville area.
MNPS Board Chair Cheryl Mayes sent a letter to Huffman Thursday asking him to meet with board members Monday about a proposed statewide panel to approve charter school applications rejected by districts that house the state’s worst schools — a controversial idea given life after the district’s controversial rejection of Great Hearts Academies.
“As with any pending legislation, I would urge you to direct any concerns to the legislators who will be voting on and deciding this matter,” Huffman wrote in response to Mayes’ request.
The relationship between the board and Huffman has been combative since the school board began issuing a series of rejections to a charter school he favored last year.
The school board has been in talks for weeks with lawmakers and interest groups on Capitol Hill about House Bill 702 that would allow a state panel to approve charter schools rejected by the district.
The MNPS school board had originally opposed that measure, then began negotiating for a version of the legislation it can live with, namely one that would limit the state-approved charter schools to a certain percentage of the district’s overall budget and created provisions allowing for an automatic closure of failing schools.
Those talks fell apart this week, according to Mayes’ letter, which added, “We were surprised to learn of your last-minute objections to the fiscal assurances we requested.” State lawmakers had planned to edit the bill to apply to school districts with schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state, which includes Davidson County and a small bundle of others.
Mayes’ letter drew a parallel between the proposed legislation and Gov. Bill Haslam’s approach in evaluating whether to expand Medicaid in the state. The governor is seeking “fiscal assurances” from the federal government to prevent the health care system from “bankrupting Tennessee’s budget,” read the letter. “MNPS simply is asking for the same kind of assurances to keep the proposed state charter appeals process from destabilizing our local budget.”
The governor ultimately decided against expanding the TennCare program and is instead working on coming up with a third option.
“This meeting probably should have happened a year ago when all this stuff with the charter controversy first began,“ said Will Pinkston, the school board’s budget committee chairman and a high-ranking political operative under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.