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Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman talks to the Rotary Club on Thursday.

Hamilton County Schools likely will apply for a state grant to start a special district within the school district aimed at improving some of the county's lowest-performing schools.

Board members met to discuss an application for the state's School Innovation Zone with Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on Thursday after his address to the Chattanooga Rotary Club. During his address, Huffman said he hopes Hamilton County will apply for the grant, which would offer $30 million to $40 million.

Schools within an innovation zone would have much wider flexibility in how they operate. Huffman said schools could implement creative ideas to improve student achievement, such as offering longer school days or differentiated curriculum.

"The idea is that districts would figure out what autonomy and flexibilities they would give to schools in the innovation zone," Huffman said.

Huffman's meeting with the school board Thursday afternoon at the Chattanooga Convention Center was closed to the media. Last week, the school board's clerk sent out public notification of the meeting, as is done when board members hold other meetings.

Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said the meeting was being held as an executive session because the board was discussing a competitive grant. She said local officials had determined to close the meeting.

But school board Chairman Mike Evatt and Superintendent Rick Smith said they didn't make the decision to close the meeting.

"It wasn't my call," Smith said. "It was the commissioner's call."

Evatt said he didn't know why the meeting was closed and didn't see any reason for an executive session.

Representatives from the local teachers union, the Tennessee Department of Education, the Public Education Foundation and school administrators were in the meeting.

The school system applied last fall for another competitive state grant to open a new science, technology, engineering and math school. Meetings about that application were open to the public.

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the state's Sunshine Law operates on the presumption of openness, and has few allowances for executive sessions of public bodies. The first line of the state's open meetings act declares that Tennessee's policy is "that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret."

Later on Thursday, officials said they'll most likely apply for the innovation zone grant, which staff members have been working on in recent weeks. Smith said they'll likely apply to create a special zone for Woodmore Elementary, Dalewood Middle and Brainerd High. Only schools that perform in the state's lowest 5 percent are eligible for the innovation zones.

Hamilton County, Nashville and Memphis school systems are eligible for this spring's round of grants, as well as the state's Achievement School District, a special state-run grouping of lower performing schools. That district includes Chattanooga's Howard School of Academics and Technology.