The Hamilton County school board is legally in the clear after its vote to continue conversations on forming a Partnership Zone between the county and state, according to a state attorney general opinion.
In a statement released Sept. 21, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said that because the vote was based on a memorandum of understanding, the school board was not entering a contract to commit itself to an agreement not now permitted under the law.
"A memorandum of understanding — a term used interchangeably with 'letter of intent' — is generally not an enforceable contract," the opinion states. And since it's not meant to be binding, it does not commit either party to a course of action or hinder either from pursuing other options.
The opinion was requested by state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who has been a vocal opponent of the Partnership Zone, as well as the full state takeover, known as the Achievement School District.
She said she requested the opinion after the Hamilton County Public Education Coalition, a group she helped start, expressed concern about the legality of the state's partnership proposal.
She said the attorney general's response was a good explanation of what was agreed upon during the Sept. 21 board meeting.
In her request, Favors asked if a board of education could vote to potentially form a partnership involving it, the state and a private company, "even though current law does not provide for such a partnership."
Favors did not name the private company she was referring to, but in June she pointed to Empower Schools, a Massachusetts- based consulting agency that partners with schools to help improve academic performance. She argued that the company was young and did not have a long enough track record, and that an outside company would not know what Chattanooga needs.
However, Steve Highlander, school board chairman, said it was his understanding that, if Empower Schools was involved, the Partnership Zone would use only the company's model, and the company would not be involved.
Amy Katcher, communications coordinator for the Hamilton County Department of Education, did not return a request for comment about a private company's involvement with the Partnership Zone agreement.
As for future legislation, state education commissioner Candice McQueen said in July she spoke with Hamilton County lawmakers and planned to pursue legislation allowing the Partnership Zone to legally move forward.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was at the school board's vote to move forward with the Partnership Zone late last month. He told board members the legislative delegation has talked about legislation for the partnership many times.
"To infer that we haven't even discussed it is not fair," he said.
Some board members were concerned the Partnership Zone would have an unstable future without legislation in place, especially financially. Board member Rhonda Thurman asked how the board could be assured that money would be there.
"That doesn't give me very much comfort, knowing that if y'all don't have the money, we don't get the money, and we're going to be stuck with the programs and nothing to pay for them with," she said.
Gardenhire told board members that no one has a guarantee regarding how much money will be allocated.
"You have no idea next year what the county commission is going to fund; they could cut you back," he said. "If this [legislation] falls through and is passed, I can tell you, we will do whatever we can to support [Superintendent Bryan Johnson] in the effort to get these schools on the right track."
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.