School board votes to close North Nashville schools under consolidation plan

Joelton Elementary School (MNPS website)
Joelton Elementary School (MNPS website)

Nearly a decade of school choice policy that saw parents in North Nashville choose charter schools or other district schools came home to roost on Tuesday when the Nashville school board voted to close four schools under a cost-saving consolidation plan.

The school board, which met remotely because of social distancing due to COVID-19, unanimously voted to close Buena Vista Elementary, Robert E. Lillard Elementary, Joelton Middle and Cohn Learning Center.

The consolidation plan will save the district an estimated $3.4 million annually.

Other than Cohn, the three schools set to be closed before the upcoming school year have been hit hard by school choice. According to data from last school year, 62.4 percent of students zoned for Buena Vista exercised school choice. Of the families who chose not to send students to Buena Vista, 39 percent picked a charter school and 61 percent attended a different district school.

At Robert E. Lillard, 59.6 percent of the students zoned for the school exercised choice with 43 percent of those students picking a charter and 57 percent attending a different district school.

School choice has especially hit the enrollment at Joelton Middle where 71 percent of the students zoned there choose to attend another school. Of the students choosing not to attend Joelton Middle, 37 percent went to a charter school and 63 percent went to a district school.

Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS website)
Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS website)

Metro Nashville Public Schools allows families to choose to send their students to a different school than their zoned school through a lottery system. Charter schools are funded with taxpayer money, but run independently by a private nonprofit that sets its own curriculum and hires its own staff.

School board member Sharon Gentry, who represents the area that is the focus of the consolidation plan, said discussion of consolidation in North and Northwest Davidson County has been ongoing since 2008 when MNPS was nearly taken over by the state. The possibility of consolidating under-enrolled schools was the subject of public meetings since 2018, but the specific proposal from Director Adrienne Battle was rolled out earlier this month.

Battle argued that consolidating schools under capacity allows the district to direct more resources to those schools where students will be re-routed.

“This is our best chance to put these schools on the path to being successful,” Gentry said. “No one is saying this is the consolidation of schools, then we wash our hands of this and move on to the next issue. It’s about our ability to put resources in a building and start to have conversations about what are the needs of the students in that building.”

According to the plan:

  • Buena Vista Elementary School would be closed and its students sent to Jones Paideia Elementary School.
  • Robert E. Lillard Elementary School would be closed and its students divided between Alex Green Elementary School and Cumberland Elementary School.
  • Joelton Middle School would be closed and its students sent to Haynes Middle School.
  • Finally, the Cohn Learning Center would be closed and its students absorbed by high school courses throughout Davidson County.

School board member Amy Frogge, who represents western Davidson County and has frequently opposed the expansion of charter schools, said the consolidation plan was the direct result of charter school expansion in Nashville. However, she voted in favor of the consolidation. 

MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge, District 9 (Photo: Twitter)
MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge, District 9 (Photo: Twitter)

Under the budget proposal considered by the school board on Tuesday, the district is planning to allocate an additional $6.6 million in estimated enrollment growth at charter schools.

“We are following the playbook that has played out nationwide in different cities,” Frogge said. “When we open a large number of charters, when any city does, the enrollment is going to decrease in the zoned schools in the traditional schools served by the district. So now we are finding ourselves trying to fund two separate, competing school systems with the same pot of money.”