The Metro Nashville school board turned down a charter proposal for the third time, even though the state education department ordered the board to endorse the charter.
The local board feared that the charter would appeal mainly to affluent white families, both because of the curriculum and the expectation that families would make a large up-front “voluntary” contribution.
Metro defies state, denies Great Hearts
8:07 PM, Sep 11, 2012 |
Written by Lisa Fingeroot The Tennessean
In a surprise move, the Metro Nashville school board defied the state’s education power structure Tuesday and denied a controversial charter school for Nashville’s West Side over concerns that it would cater mainly to wealthy, white families.
The vote marked the third time Metro board members denied a charter to Great Hearts Academies, a firm that operates a system of 12 charter schools in Arizona. But the vote also marks the first time a local school board has defied the State Board of Education, which ordered Metro to approve the charter school and hinted at funding penalties if they didn’t.
State officials could not be reached for comment late Tuesday, and Great Hearts officials also were unavailable. That left questions about what happens next largely unanswered for the moment.
During the meeting, an attorney for Great Hearts made a last-minute appeal to the board for its approval, but he left soon after the vote.
The vote was 5-4 against Great Hearts, with Amy Frogge, Jo Ann Brannon, Sharon Gentry, Anna Shepherd and new Chairman Cheryl Mayes opposing the school. Jill Speering, Elissa Kim, Will Pinkston, and Michael Hayes voted in favor of Great Hearts.
Frogge, a new board member, said she and others were concerned about the threat of litigation against them, both as board members and personally, but said she felt they had a moral obligation to Nashville’s schoolchildren to vote without fear.
Pinkston, also a new board member, appeared to be leaning against Great Hearts during the board’s discussion, but voted to approve it in the end.
He voted in favor because of the legal threats, Pinkston said. After discussions with the board’s lawyers, he is satisfied the state has the legal authority to demand Metro approve the school and is also concerned about the threats that have been made by state officials.
The repercussions are “the great unknown,” Pinkston said.
Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman accused the Metro board of breaking the law when it delayed a vote on Great Hearts and a State Board of Education attorney said consequences for not following a state directive could include the loss of funding for Metro schools.
In explaining her opposition to Great Hearts, Frogge echoed a concern that has been a sticking point for others who have voted against the school in the past.
The main issue for Metro board members has been whether the school would cater to an affluent, largely white population or work to create a more diverse student body by providing transportation to students from other areas of the city.
If the board sets a precedent that allows charter schools to serve only those who can afford an affluent neighborhood or the transportation there, then the board will leave behind the very kids it must protect, Frogge said.
New member Pinkston suggested the board create a committee to develop a comprehensive diversity plan that could be shown to potential charter school applicants in the future. Metro’s diversity plan is currently spread through many different documents, he added.
Great Hearts has chosen a location between Charlotte Pike and White Bridge Road, which is in the majority white and wealthy 37205 zip code, but also borders the more diverse and less affluent 37218 zip code.
Black community leaders opposed the school because they worried it would become an exclusive charter school catering to wealthy white parents in the area. Parents in favor of the school, however, said they wanted the rigorous curriculum provided by Great Hearts, whose Arizona schools have much higher standards and a faster learning pace than those set by Metro public schools.
The school board has twice denied the charter application and even provoked the ire of state education officials by refusing to vote on the charter school a third time after Great Hearts won a state appeal.
The State Board of Education directed the Metro board to approve the school, but the board delayed a decision, which caused state officials to speculate on the possible consequences that worry Pinkston.
Lisa Fingeroot can be reached at 259-8892 or LFingeroot@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaFingeroot.
School board denies Great Hearts charter again
6:25 PM, Sep 11, 2012 |
6 Comments Updated at 6:20 p.m.
The Metro school board denied the Great Hearts Academy charter school again tonight in a vote of 5-4.
Previously reported: Leader says $1,200 donation from parents ‘optional’
A controversial charter school expected to be approved tonight by the Metro Nashville school board asks families in its Arizona schools to ante up a $1,200 gift, a separate $200 tax credit contribution, and a few hundred dollars in book and classroom fees.
However, a Great Hearts Academies official says the schools are free and that even the book fees will be waived if necessary.
“It is 100 percent clear to everyone in our schools that those are optional contributions,” said Peter Bezanson, president of Great Hearts Tennessee, the nonprofit management company set up for the five schools Great Hearts hopes to open in Nashville.
Great Hearts’ requests for parent donations in Arizona are larger than those typically seen in Nashville public or charter schools.
For example, Julia Green Elementary PTO asks for a $300 donation and J.T. Moore Middle asks for $250, parent volunteers said. Meigs Middle, which is conducting a technology campaign, asks for $5 to $500, depending on what parents feel they can afford.
LEAD Academy, a charter school with a campus near Great Hearts’ target area in West Nashville, notes on its website that “we must raise an additional $1,500 per student” to supplement the public funding the school receives, but LEAD doesn’t explicitly request that amount from parents as Great Hearts does.
LEAD is always on the lookout for donors and constantly applies for grants, said Shaka Mitchell, director of external affairs. The school also has an annual breakfast to raise money for students to visit colleges.
Charter schools in Tennessee don’t usually ask for donations from attending families because the population has been traditionally from lower socioeconomic groups, said Rebecca A. Lieberman, chief talent strategy officer at the Tennessee Charter School Incubator. But they do ask for donations from others and participate in fundraising, she added.
The proposed Great Hearts charter became controversial mostly because of the wealth associated with its supporters and the affluence of the mostly white West Nashville area where it plans to locate.
The Metro school board has twice denied the proposed school and even refused to bow to state pressure last month, postponing a vote on Great Hearts because members were not convinced the charter was dedicated to diversity. The board had been ordered by the state to approve the charter after Great Hearts appealed its denial.
Great Hearts officials have promised to market to families in other areas of the city and to supply some transportation for poor children.
Books loaned if students can’t pay
The Great Hearts schools in Arizona ask every parent to participate in two fundraising campaigns. Parents are asked to make a one-time, $1,200 donation — which can be paid in monthly installments during a school year — and a $200 gift that allows the donor to receive a dollar-for-dollar Arizona tax credit. One Great Hearts school requests a $1,500 contribution.
The only mandatory fee is a refundable deposit of $35 per textbook, Bezanson said. If a parent cannot afford it, the fee can be waived without a lot of paperwork, he added.
The websites show different requirements, though. They say parents must submit a $25 application to an outside party along with tax documents. That company will determine whether parents are eligible for a waiver.
The schools also ask students to purchase other books for reading the classics of the Western canon that are so much a part of the curriculum, but Bezanson said schools will loan those books to students if needed.
Class fees of $120 are required for workbooks, student planners, assemblies, field days and ceremonies, according to at least one of the school’s websites, but again Bezanson said the fees are not required.
Great Hearts, like any other school, wants everyone to participate, he added.
“We never send anyone away,” he said. “We have never turned anyone away for not paying.”
Lisa Fingeroot can be reached at 615-259-8892 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 615-259-8892 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or firstname.lastname@example.org.