Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen walks to address the Hamilton County Board of Education during a meeting on Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. McQueen presented a partnership school district plan to the board to with the goal of improving Hamilton County's lowest performing schools.

This story was updated to correct the name of JoAnne Favors' Chattanooga Public School Coalition.

There is not an option for no decision.

It's up to the Hamilton County school board to decide if it will partner with the state or allow it to take over the district's five lowest-performing schools.

"There is not an option for no decision," said Candice McQueen, Tennessee's education commissioner, during Thursday night's board meeting.

McQueen said she believes the state and Hamilton County are uniquely positioned to work together to improve outcomes in the district's five lowest-performing schools, but if the board doesn't agree, her office will move forward with the plan to place at least some of the schools in the state-run Achievement School District.

School board Chairman Steve Highlander voiced concerns about the partnership plan, which calls for an oversight board for the schools with 60 percent of the members selected by the state and 40 percent selected by Hamilton County Schools. The board would have between seven and 10 members.

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School board wrestles with state partnership for lowest-performing schools

"I'm a negotiator, I can hammer things out for horses or cars or land or school systems," Highlander said. "And, as I see it, we are the junior partners in this partnership. You are the senior partner."

He continued to ask if this means the state will take responsibility for success or failure at Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary under the partnership.

McQueen said the state and Hamilton County would need to take responsibility and be held accountable for outcomes.

"This is about us coming to the table and saying 'let's put students at the center of the conversation,'" she said. "Ultimately, yes, this is a state intervention, but it is only successful if the state and the district are truly working as partners."

But school board member Tiffanie Robinson, who represents two of the schools facing intervention, said she's nervous to enter a five-year contract with the state to create this partnership district without having an equal number of seats on its governing board.

McQueen said the state would have one more seat on the partnership's board because the plan is an intervention and is something the state is dedicating funding to and wants to be sure is successful.

"And quite frankly, the investment the state has already made has not met the success points that we've all expected," McQueen said. "So there is a reason why we think majority governance is important."

The five schools, known as priority or iZone schools, received more than $10 million in additional state funds in the past five years but continue to rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, McQueen noted.

Robinson asked if the board could select a new superintendent before making the decision whether to enter into the partnership with the state or allow it to take the schools over.

McQueen said if a superintendent is selected in the coming weeks, that could be an option, but she will need to know this summer if the board is going to agree to the partnership or if she needs to plan for more extreme interventions.

During the presentation, which lasted more than an hour, McQueen and several others provided details about the proposed partnership district to the board, elected officials and members of the community.

McQueen said the state anticipates it will contribute $1 million into the schools the first year and $500,000 the second, and the schools will also continue to receive much of their per-pupil allocations from the state and federal government. The partnership district will also leverage philanthropic dollars, she added.

But the partnership district will ultimately be designed to run on sustainable, district-level funding, and after the contract expires in five years, the state and school system will have the option to renew the contract.

McQueen added that the schools will not be reconstituted, and that teachers and administrators would not have to reapply for their jobs. It would be up to the appointed board and its director to determine staffing.

School board member Rhonda Thurman questioned the legality of the partnership district, as its board would be appointed by state and Hamilton County Schools, and the law says schools must have elected representatives.

McQueen said she's confident that the state can work with the legislature to make the needed changes.

After the presentation and during the school board's agenda session, Tennessee state Rep. JoAnne Favors urged the board not to accept the deal, questioning if it was a civil rights violation.

Standing next to former school board member George Ricks, who Robinson beat in last fall's election, Favors suggested the district is a way for certain groups to make a profit, as it's proposed working with a group called Empower Schools, a national nonprofit organization that has implemented similar programs to turn around failing schools in Colorado and Massachusetts.

"Is this part of a movement to dismantle our public school system and implement privatization at the expense of taxpayers?" she asked.

Favors announced that she and Ricks, along with others, are launching the Chattanooga Public School Coalition. The group is asking the board to wait a year before voting on the partnership. The group also wants the board to hold community forums to discuss state laws regarding the schools, and meet with the city, county and juvenile court system about the five iZone schools.

Favors did not mention what she wants to take place in the schools during the upcoming year, but said the coalition is going to start holding private meetings and get organized.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.