published Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Haslam says fining Nashville schools only choice

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam
Photo by Tracey Trumbull /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam acknowledged Wednesday that a $3.4 million fine on Nashville’s public school system will affect students, but insisted that the fault lies with school board members who refused to approve a charter school.

The state Education Department has characterized the withheld funding as targeting administrative functions of the school system, not classroom instruction. But the school system has responded that the money goes to a variety of operations ranging from transportation to maintenance — each of which have an effect on students.

The governor didn’t argue with those claims when he met with reporters after a groundbreaking ceremony for an expansion of a Bank of New York Mellon Corp. processing center in Nashville.

“Obviously everything in a school system is ultimately for the benefit of a child, every administrative assistant in the central building, etc.,” he said. “So ultimately that’s right. And that’s why Metro’s decision to do that was harmful.”

The withheld funding is the equivalent of about 1.5 percent of the annual total the city receives under the state’s school funding formula. It came in response to the Nashville school board’s decision last week to reject an application from the Great Hearts Academy for a third time, even after the state school board unanimously ordered the city’s panel to approve it.

Opponents have raised concerns that the charter school planned to draw from affluent white families, rather than to cultivate a more diverse student body.

“I don’t know where we’ve had a situation where the school board has willfully said, ‘OK, we know what the law is, but we’re going to do something different,”’ Haslam said. “We’re in fairly uncharted waters.”

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman cited state law that gives him the discretion to withhold a portion or all state funding or school districts that don’t follow the law. But the school board was never informed about the specific fine it might face, and internal emails show Huffman informed his communications staff last month to “not answer any questions about money” from reporters.

Haslam said he also saw no reason to specify penalties before the vote, and denies he sent mixed signals when he said last month that the state wasn’t in the business of “threatening money” over the issue.

“I don’t know whether it’s our responsibility to say, ‘Oh, if you break the law, here’s what’s going (to happen),”’ Haslam said Wednesday.

The governor did appear to open the door toward averting the fine if the Nashville school board members find what he called a “remedy.” He didn’t specify what that would be, and Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier didn’t appear confident about a resolution.

“At this point, it’s difficult to imagine what a ‘remedy’ might look like, but we’re certainly open to discussions with Metro regarding the issue,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, board Chairwoman Cheryl D. Mayes in a letter to Huffman said she was “disappointed that you are taking this punitive step toward our system of 81,000 students.”

Mayes called for a meeting with the commissioner to “revisit this matter and avert this action.”

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