Education Commissioner Candice McQueen
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told members of the County School Board on Thursday that the state is taking over several low-performing Hamilton County Schools one way or the other.
She said if the board does not agree to join in a "partnership" with the state to operate a special school district for five of the low-end schools that the state will begin preparations to place several schools in an Achievement School District.
Commissioner McQueen wanted an answer from the board next month. She said it could have a little more time after Chairman Steve Highlander said a new superintendent will be named at the June meeting. He said the new superintendent should have a say in the decision.
The schools that would go into a "Partnership Zone" would be Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary.
She said the state is willing to put $1 million into the zone the first year and $500,000 the second year. She indicated the zone could operate in after years through regular BEP and federal funds, plus philanthropic help.
Commissioner McQueen said there would be a five-year contract with the board for the zone that would have its own board. The state would appoint the majority of the board members and the School Board would have several picks.
Chairman Highlander said it appeared the state "would be the senior partner and we are the junior partner." Commissioner McQueen said it was the state that had the responsibility to act on low-performing schools "under federal and state law."
She said, "There is not an option for no decision based on the track record" of the schools' performance under the county schools. She added, "There is an urgent need for some intervention. Our guiding principle is that the students can't wait."
Chairman Highlander asked if the state "will take responsibility" for the success or failure of the joint effort. The commissioner said both parties would have involvement.
The board was told that 85 percent of BEP money that would normally go to the schools would go to the zone - with 15 percent retained by the central office.
The zone schools would remain county schools and the teachers would stay county school teachers, it was stated.
The district would have its own director hired by its board.
It would follow some county school policies, such as whether to take snow days.
Two officials from Springfield, Mass., spoke to the board, telling that the idea has worked well there.
Board member Rhonda Thurman questioned whether it is legal to set up a board that is not elected by the voters. Commissioner McQueen acknowledged that would take special legislation.
Karitsa Mosley Jones, another board member, said she had "poured my heart and soul" into three of the schools that would be going into the zone, but then would no longer be the board representative. Commissioner McQueen said it was possible that an elected board member could serve on the board, though it might be difficult to serve on both.
Ms. Jones asked if the school staffs would be "reconstituted" under the zone plan, and the commissioner said that was not the intention. However, that has happened under the Achievement School District set-up in other parts of the state.
Joe Galloway of the board said he liked the idea that the program would be "school-centric" with individual schools being able to implement what works best for them.
Officials said the idea would not be "to start over" at the zone schools, but to "build on what is working for them."
There would be a year of planning before the district went into effect for 2018-19.
A number of local legislators and County Commission members were at the presentation.
Senator Todd Gardenhire said he is in support, saying the county schools have had a failing record with the schools - with some having been on the low-performing list for many years.