Nashville Metro Board Denies Charter App, School Gives Up

In defiance of a state order and against the advice of its own legal counsel, the Metro school board in Nashville, Tennessee has once more rejected a charter application from Great Hearts Academies — and now Great Hearts has decided to give up the fight.

Although this time the vote was closer, with 5 board members voting to reject and 4 voting to approve, the result was the same. This is the fourth time in three months that the application from the Phoenix, Arizona-based company has been rejected by the school board, leading many to assume that a lawsuit might be required to get Metro to relent.

The sticking point for the board continues to be Great Hearts’ diversity plan for their new charter school in West Nashville. This point was strongly reiterated earlier this week, with board members saying that they will not vote to approve the application until the company draws up clear plans on how it intends to maintain diversity in its school. After the vote, the attorney representing the company, Ross Booher, said that he would need to consult with the client about how to proceed but didn’t rule out litigation as the next step.

“Great Hearts is obviously disappointed that the school board chose to again break state law but remains hopeful for the future,” he said.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman did not immediately return a phone message.

It was hoped that the addition of four new board members prior to this meeting would make the vote break Great Hearts’ way, and three of the four new appointees did vote to approve the charter. However, that wasn’t enough. With Amy Frogge of District 9 voting to deny the application, and newly appointed board chair Cheryl Mayes breaking the tie with a no vote, Great Hearts is left to consider whether a courtroom will provide a friendlier environment for their decision.

Frogge, who defeated a well-financed, pro-charter candidate in August’s election, said the new board “inherited this problem,” adding that there’s been talk about the board being sued “collectively and possibly individually” over the Great Hearts matter.

“I don’t want all of this talk over litigation and potential personal liability to cloud our collective decision–making,” Frogge said before outlining her case.

In July, Great Hearts appealed the board’s denial to the state board of education which sent the decision back to Metro, saying that it should grant the school its approval assuming it meets the three conditions specified by the state board. The company has already committed to meet two of the conditions by hiring licensed teachers and limiting themselves to just one school rather than the originally planned five charter schools. The wrangling over the diversity plan continued, however, with the company balking at adopting the plan that is preferred by the district for its charters.

Lisa Fingeroot, writing in the Tennessean, reports that in the wake of the school board’s decision, Great Hearts has decided to pull out of the state entirely until such time as “Tennessee’s laws and charter approval process more effectively provide for open enrollment, broad service to the community and impartial authorizers.”  They also said that the overtly hostile nature of the board would, in any event, make opening a successful charter school impossible at this point.

Fingeroot anticipates that this will reopen the debate on whether to create a state agency to handle the granting of charter approvals.  Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association, said that the current system was harming the children of Nashville because every application renewed the political discussion.  He added that the association was examining the ways in which other states have sought to take politics out of the charter school approval process.

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