Blount Schools release specifics in Hope Academy denial

The Hope Academy on Monday received the detailed list of objections the Blount County School Board has in denying their application to create a Science, Technology Engineering and Math academy.

While most of the objections dealt with either finances or operational details, the Innovative Education Partnership board that created the 450-page application is busy reworking their document to resubmit to the school board.

“We had a four-and-a-half hour work session reviewing the seven pages of written objections the school board provided to us as the basis for their denial of our application,” said Innovative Education Partnership board member Tab Burkhalter. “We believe there are legitimate questions in there that we plan on addressing in our appeal. There are areas that need to be clarified, because we believe we properly presented some pieces of information they raised objections to, so we need to better restate some of our positions and principles in our amended application.”

Burkhalter said the partnership has until Aug. 30 to resubmit the amended application, then the school board will have 15 days to render a final decision. If denied, the application can be submitted to the Tennessee State Board of Education for approval or denial.

The nine-page letter from Rob Britt, Blount County director of schools, referenced the Aug. 2 work session the board and administration had with the Hope Academy organizers.

“Although the overarching concept and educational programming feature many good aspects, the application as submitted is overall vague and ambiguous when it comes to details. The lack of specific goals, objectives and student outcomes, coupled with concerns, questions and issues with incomplete answers as well as uncertainty with how the school would operate were evident in the meeting,” he said. “On Thursday, Aug. 4, the Blount County Board of Education denied the application based on the discovery of incomplete information, inaccurate information, conflict with the old law versus the new law, issues and concerns related to the educational plan, governance and policies, as well as operations and finance.”

Burkhalter said the partnership based their application on applications that had been successfully approved by other school systems. “Obviously this is the first time Blount County Schools has had to look at a charter application, and it is somewhat of a learning curve for both sides,” he said.

Burkhalter said the academy board believes, based upon applications approved in Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox counties, their application met and exceeded what had been approved in other districts. “That is where we will go about more clearly defining and explaining the purpose and mission as well as the policies, procedures and day-to-day operations of the school,” he said.

Out of a possible 100 points, the committee reviewing the application gave it a 35.5. The review committee was made up of Blount County central office staff who evaluated 20 legislative required elements of the charter school application. Each of the 20 elements is included in one of four categories: mission, education plan, founding group and business/operations plan.

Burkhalter said the rubicon that the review committee used is meant to be a guideline in evaluating the application. “We believe when we submit our amended application, the rubicon will reflect a much higher score for the school. We were graded on their expectations and not on the guidelines we followed from other charter school applications. When we submit our amended application, the application will be geared more toward the school board’s expectation and less on what has been successfully used in other charter school applications across the state.”

Education plan criticized

Regarding educational plan, out of a possible 40 points, the committee awarded 15.5. “The committee said items listed in commendations have been or currently are a part of Blount County Schools and do not provide anything different for students to have a more full and rewarding educational experience if enrolled in the charter school,” Britt said

Britt said the review committee criticized the Hope Academy organizers for not adequately defining areas of deficiency in the Blount County School System. He said the committee also questioned specifics about how the academy will provide innovation in education and said there were not clear goals regarding Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Britt said the review committee said the way Hope Academy will assess and evaluate students mirror the county system’s.

Transportation was also a sticking point with the review committee, particularly in regards to how the school would serve economically disadvantaged students on free and reduced lunch who depend on buses to get to school. The plan proposed by the Hope Academy would not include transportation, Burkhalter said.

“Other charter schools throughout the state do not offer transportation but still serve the free and reduced population. The children get to school via car pooling and parents working together,” Burkhalter said.

One area where the review committee raised several objections was the academy’s plan for special education and working with students with disabilities.

Britt said the review committee found the application didn’t provide for a continuum of services for students with disabilities. Britt said that while Hope Academy intended in its application to refer students suspected of having a disability to Blount County Schools for a comprehensive evaluation, the plan did not address a fee structure for such evaluation or a plan to provide required obligations through qualified professionals.

Burkhalter said special education was a large area of the committee’s objections. “They’re coming from the view point that they want zero involvement in special education programming. Other charter schools work out a fixed contract or fee for the county to provide special education services so that it is a defined area,” Burkhalter said.

Founding group critiqued

Regarding the Founding Group, the review committee gave the application 10.5 points out of 20. Criticism in the objections dealt with the committee’s concerns regarding the old and new charter school laws and how they apply to the application.

Business plan graded

Regarding the Business and Operations plan, the review committee gave the application five out of a possible 30 points. Regarding operating budget, the review committee gave the application a zero out of 10 points. In regards to timetable, the review committee gave the application a zero out of 3 points. It also gave the application a zero out of 2 points regarding admissions policies as well as health and safety compliance and transportation.

“A major concern with respect to the state funding is that if a large number of current Blount County students enroll in Hope Academy, it would result in a redirection of existing revenues without being able to cut an equal amount of costs,” Britt said. “It will be difficult to cut associated costs from losing students scattered throughout the system.”

Hope Academy organizers have said that if the school board seeks a waiver allowing students from Alcoa and Maryville to have the same access as Blount County students, that could ease the financial burden on Blount County because funding would follow the students from the Alcoa and Maryville school systems.

“The open enrollment law passed in July of this year has created some question as to the funding for students that transfer from one LEA to a charter school in another LEA,” Burkhalter said. “We’ll be working with the Department of Education to provide all the appropriate documentation as to how that mechanism works and flows.”

Nixon weighs in on process

Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, said if the Blount County School Board denies the application a second time, the academy organizers have the right to appeal to the State Board of Education.

“Then it comes to the state board, and we would hold a hearing, get information, make a recommendation to the state board,” said Nixon. “The state board is the final hearing body. The majority of times, the state board upholds the local board’s decision.”

Nixon said one option is for the state board to remand the application back to the local school board and direct them to approve the charter. “There haven’t been too many times, less than five, that the board has remanded the application back to the local board with a directive to approve,” he said.

Burkhalter said the STEM philosophy has been talked about by Maryville and Alcoa to the point their proposal for grant money to build a STEM school lost out to Knoxville. “There is clearly a desire among educators in the county to have a sole STEM-oriented school here in the county,” he said. “We are excited about being able to provide that learning opportunity.”

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