Hope Academy submits amended application

The founding board of Hope Academy Charter School on Monday resubmitted their application in response to objections lodged by the Blount County School Board in denying their application earlier this month.

Tab Burkhalter, attorney and District 1-B Blount County commissioner serves on the board and shared his thoughts on the resubmitted application.

“Based on the objections given to us by the school board, we addressed each of their objections in the resubmitted applications,” Burkhalter said. “Probably the most significant thing we did as far as the community impact is the removal of the waiver request where we were asking to treat all Blount County students as equal,” he said.

Burkhalter said that with that waiver being removed, the slots in the charter school enrollment will first be filled with students from the Blount County Legal Education Authority (Blount County Schools System). If any slots remain open, they can be filled by students of the Alcoa, Maryville or Knox County Legal Education Authorities. “Instead of treating Maryville and Alcoa and Blount County school system students as one, we have divided it up into two groups,” he said. Burkhalter said that based on queries received to date, approximately 140 of them represent Blount County students. The school will open with 180 students.

Burkhalter said another objection the school board had was in relation to funding for special education programming. “We presented a budget to the school board that doesn’t budget for use of any federal dollars for special education, but we have staffed our per pupil expenditure for special education higher than Blount County currently spends on a per pupil basis, for which they get reimbursement from the federal government,” he said.

Burkhalter said the board assumed they had zero matching federal funds, whereas Blount County receives federal funding for special education. “If we qualify for it, we will ask for it, but we feel our budget supports providing special education services because we will be able to deliver services necessary within our budget constraints of just the local and state funding portion without adding in the federal portion,” he said. “Once a student is identified as needing Special Education, it goes into a census population and federal funding would flow to the Board of Education, and they would appropriate it out to us since our school would be taking responsibility for the services given to that student.”

Burkhalter said that regarding the transportation issue that was brought up by the school board, the founding board chose not to offer an alternative. “The Blount County School Board has a policy that if a student transfers to a school within the system for which they are not zoned, the parent must provide transportation for the student to get to the new school,” Burkhalter said.

The attorney said, “We believe our position of not offering transportation fits in with the county’s policy on in-system transfers. We do not believe that the lack of transportation will be a deterrent to the school meeting the goal of representing the proportionality of students who are classified as “Free or Reduced Lunch” students.”

Burkhalter said the money that will be allocated from the Blount County School System is still going to be spent on students already enrolled in the Blount County School System. “Yes, this might not have been budgeted by the county school board for these 180 students, but the argument that we are preferentially treating 180 students with this expenditure is no different than when a school system chooses to upgrade one school over another by providing new teachers, technology and a new building while other students in county are using older equipment and facilities,” he said.

Burkhalter said on Monday afternoon the amended application had been submitted to the school board. “We’re waiting to hear from them about when they’ll have a special meeting,” he said of them voting on the measure. If the board denies it a second time, the Hope Academy would have the option of appealing to the State Board of Education. They would then come to town, do interviews and hear from the Academy proponents, the school board and the community before delivering a binding decision.

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