Tracy O’Neill is a mom and education activist in rural Cheatham County, Tennessee. This pleasant community is now riven by a controversy, as TFA corps members seek approval to open a charter school to compete with the public schools. Aside from the financial cost to the community, the charter school will divide community support for the local schools. Tracy is running for a seat on the local school board, to be in a position to support the public schools against this effort to undermine them and set neighbor against neighbor.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 – Tracy A. O’Neill – Ashland City, TN

Cheatham County, Tennessee is a small rural community just outside of Nashville. As far as the eye can see are rolling hills and green fields. Driving down the main roads through the small towns that make up the corners of our beautiful county you find Community theaters, baseball diamonds, soccer games, and Friday night lights that fill the weeks throughout the year. One of the many benefits of living in a small country town is that we know our neighbors; we know the kids, and we are involved in our public schools.

Like many communities across the country, and the state of Tennessee, Cheatham Co has been struggling with poor leadership on our local school board and in our administration. Over the last few years, we have had a revolving door of teachers come and go for one reason or another. Due to poor decisions at the top, our lovely quiet community has become a target area for the infamous poachers of public education: Teach for America.

A few years ago, a new Director of Schools- who was bought out after one year – brought Teach for America corps members ( TFA ) to fill the “hard to fill teaching positions,” yet core subjects in the High Schools, like math, were left unfilled for months at a time. I find it ironic, and disgraceful that the Cheatham county Board of Education continues to push highly qualified, experienced educators out the door, yet continue to offer two-year contracts to unlicensed TFA recruits that have only five weeks training. What I want to know is the rationale behind this decision?

Apparently, the “solution” is being offered by two TFA Corps members who, in April, submitted an application for a Charter School to open in little ole’ Cheatham County. On June 10, 2014, a newly comprised committee appointed by the school board hosted a public meeting to ask questions of the applicants and their board members. Ironically, but not really surprisingly, 3 of the 6 members sitting at the table for the new Cumberland Academy are from Teach for America. (Jimmy Hopper, Johnny Gersten and Brian Gilmore are all TFA alums). Hopper has been teaching in our High School for the past two years on a transitional license and Gersten, also transitional, taught at the Middle School for a short period a year or so ago. Most Cheatham County parents don’t know about Teach for America. They believed Hopper and Gersten were two of the many dedicated teachers in our school system. Now, we learn Hopper and Gersten have been teaching here with a goal to open Cumberland Academy, which will be, according to the Charter Board, the first model for rural charters across the entire country

Neither Gersten, nor Hopper, were licensed teachers in Tennessee. In fact, the lead guy, Jimmy Hopper, worked in DC Politics for one of the major parties before coming to the Cheatham County classroom and these two young men are slated to be the operators of this new school. Neither of them have a professional administrator’s license, yet Hopper will assume the role similar to an Executive Director, and Gersten….Well HE’S the “Director of CULTURE,” whatever the heck THAT dubious job description means.

Cheatham County has an ever-shrinking tax base and limited financial resources. This school is targeting students from the Ashland City and East Cheatham Elementary schools. Our county is wide and separated by the Cumberland River. The likelihood of students traveling to Ashland City from Pegram, Kingston Springs or Pleasant View to attend this school is slim. Therefore, logic would dictate that those students will be pulled from ONE middle school.

The Charter school will begin with 90 5th graders and add a higher grade each year. Now, that doesn’t sound like much. However, when you consider our average total class sizes range from 130-150 students, it’s HUGE! That’s over 50% of ONE class! Add another grade each year and they will decimate student enrollment at our middle school and severely limit our budget. We may have to lay off more teachers…we may have to combine classes…we may have to eliminate classes. Our local leaders may have to look to raise property taxes on struggling homeowners and landowners to make up for the loss. Parents and citizens need to understand what it means to allow a Charter School operation in a local community, especially one classified as rural, because contrary to self serving propaganda, this is NOT about school choice. It’s about MONEY.

In the neighboring City of Nashville, all available new revenue for Metro-Nashville Public Schools is going to charter schools, which currently serve only 5% of their students. The average annual growth in cash outlays for charter schools has exceeded 50% since 2008, versus only 4% for the rest of the district. Memphis is $157 million in debt, but must continue to pony up charter school funds. In 2003, the charter school budget was $1.9 million. Now it’s $82.9 million and even that’s up from $57.8 million last year. That’s over a $20 million increase in ONE YEAR! EIGHTY MILLION in just 10 years!

The Charter committee said they will target Cheatham County’s low income families, and homeschoolers, and are preparing a mass mail out with those families they have identified as prospects. The proposed operation site is in a local shopping center in between the Tractor Supply and the Food Lion grocery store. Where is the play ground for the kids? The parking lot? They have no plans to have a kitchen or onsite cafeteria services, but will find a contractor to give the kids some kind of food.

When asked by the committee why they haven’t provided a commitment letter for annual funding, Board member and venture capitalist Landon Gibbs replied, “none of these people want us to use their names.” Well, I find that to be a bit disconcerting. Who’s hiding what here?

The Charter Board members touted their recruitment to the committee stating they have had approximately 50 supportive parents at their public meetings. Cheatham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Thomson followed up with, “How many of those 50 parents are (in your designated) low income target area?” The “I don’t know” response was stifling. Board of Education Instruction Supervisor, Stacey Brinkley asked the Charter Board their procedure for hiring highly qualified teachers. Brain Gilmore advised the board that they plan to use many avenues but intend to focus on TFA Alum to fill their classrooms.

Cheatham County’s Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tara Watson asked the members why a “public charter?” With the name dropping of the Walton Foundation and all the infinite resources they seem to have available, “Why not open a private school?” she asked. TFA’s Gersten replied, “Our funders are very excited about The Cumberland Academy… They are not excited about funding another private school.” My question is, why not? If they truly believe they are innovators of education, then they need to put their money where their mouth is and fund this “public” school without our tax dollars. There is no law prohibiting a privately funded school from being open to the public. Colleges and Universities do it all the time.

As much information as I’ve written, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this proposal. I believe this Charter school will cost us far more than it will contribute. Charter schools, whether labeled “public” or “private” are entities managed by private corporations that operate outside the purview of the law and outside the spirit in which they were originally designed and Cheatham County simply can’t afford another liability.

The Cheatham County School Board will be voting on the application to open The Cumberland Academy, June 24th, 2014. The meeting begins at 6:00 pm at the Annex Building in Ashland City. A public forum will be opened before they take up the application. Considering TFA people intend to use Cumberland Academy as their testing ground for a national model for rural charters, I strongly encourage every person possible to be at this meeting, because a TFA rural Charter just might be coming to your back yard next.

Space is VERY limited, so plan to arrive early if you want a seat.

Tracy A. O’Neill
Ashland City, TN
Cheatham County