Blount County School Board gets first look at Hope Academy application

Representatives of the Hands-On Progressive Education Academy presented an application to form a charter school to the Blount County School Board Monday night during the board’s regular June meeting.

Blount County Commissioner and founding board member Tab Burkhalter fielded questions, many of which had to do with the costs and financial impact on the Blount County School system if the charter school opened under their jurisdiction.

Schools director Rob Britt said the school system had officially received the group’s application to open the science, technology, engineering and math charter school in Blount County. Britt said he recently had a two-hour conversation with the executive director of the school, Pat Bradley. “We’re a long way from having a real good understanding of this massive volume of information,” he said.

Britt said school board member Dr. Don McNelly has been going through the more than 250-page application. The application was then forwarded to the board’s attorney Chuck Cagle for advice, Britt said.

“This is new territory. We are the first rural school system to have a charter school application submitted to them,” Britt said. “We’ll try to get our hands around this and understand it to the best of our ability.”

Burkhalter explained to the board that there would be a waiver so that all of the approximately 200 students who attend Hope Academy would not come only from Blount County. The school is hoping to attract students from Maryville and Alcoa as well as surrounding counties. When those students come, the “money follows the student,” Burkhalter said. The waiver allows the school to treat all students within the Blount geographical area as preferred students for enrollment. “Maryville and Alcoa students would be treated equally with Blount County,” Burkhalter said.

The academy will initially be an elementary school with 185 students, which would translate into about $1.4 million in funding coming from the individual students’ school systems to help fund the academy.

“The thought process behind the waiver was to shift the burden out so Blount County would not be holding the whole $1.4 million payment,” he said.

Board member Mike Treadway asked Burkhalter if there was a marketing plan in the application so that all residents of Blount County would be aware of the academy. “Once the application is approved, we can start. We have a website up so people can fill out information, and we will promote the academy in Blount Today and the Maryville Daily Times to get the word out,” Burkhalter said. “In regards to marketing to date, it has been word of mouth.”

Treadway said, “As far as my comfort level, I want to see a marketing plan put in the application.”

Treadway said he spoke with a charter school official with the state who told him charter schools could put a financial burden on school systems. “I personally respect and value the right of any parent to educate their child as they see fit,” he said. “It comes back to what is the financial burden charter schools will put on our school system.”

Board member John Paul Davis said he wanted to see proof the academy would help students in Blount County before he voted to approve the application. “Before I say yes, someone has to explain how this is going to benefit us. Someone has to give me a reason why this will help Blount County students,” he said. “That’s a hump that is going to be hard to get over. I’m pretty proud of the Blount County school system. I’m not going to vote to take $1.4 million away from some kids and give it to others unless there are some compelling reasons.”

Burkhalter said the board members for the academy want to answer every question the school board members have. “I will make sure we sit down one-on-one,” he said.

Board member Brad Long said he wants to know the advantages of the academy before he votes on it. “I’m going to want to know what the academy can do better than what we do in Blount County,” he said. “I’m going to want to see a list of priorities before I vote for it.”

Regarding the budget for the 2011-12 year, school board members postponed voting until they see if Blount County commissioners uphold Mayor Ed Mitchell’s veto of a tax increase that will help fund the schools’ proposed budget.

The school’s $78,367,000 proposed budget is based on an 11-cent tax increase that Mitchell vetoed. Blount County Commissioners are set to meet Friday, June 24, to vote on the veto, which takes 11 votes to overturn. The commissioners on June 16 voted by a margin of 12-9 to approve the budget and property tax increase.

School board member John Paul Davis, in town for a few days of rest between treatments at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, voiced support for the proposed budget and tax increase.

“We’ll be faced with opening the most technologically advanced elementary school in Tennessee or laying off teachers,” he said of the choices the board will have to make if the veto is upheld. “We may be able to make it and open Prospect Elementary if the veto is not upheld.”

Prospect Elementary is set to be completed by the end of this month. The elementary school in Seymour is scheduled to open this fall.

“I’m not for taking anything away from the children. I would put my money where my mouth is and encourage commissioners to look at what is not necessarily the popular thing, but at what is the right thing,” Davis said. “I realize we live in a representative democracy, but there are times when leadership means walking the other way.”

Even with a tax increase, Britt said the system would have to spend $695,000 of fund balance. “Unless we dip into fund balance, it will mean laying off employees,” Britt said.

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