There is growing concern among Nashville politicians and public education advocates that Gov. Bill Lee is posturing for a takeover of Metro Nashville Public Schools.

The rumors were rampant last week after Republican lawmakers filed legislation to punish MNPS and Shelby County Schools for not offering in-person instruction most of this school year by taking away state education funds from those districts. Lee led the charge criticizing the districts for only providing virtual instruction.

Then came a letter on Monday sent by Lee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn demanding MNPS account for unspent federal grant funds. Under normal circumstances, the internal accounting of grant funds would be a bureaucratic matter that would never see the light of day to generate media coverage.

Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo: TN.gov)
Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo: TN.gov)

Schwinn’s letter was peculiar for two reasons: MNPS has about 18 months to meet its deadlines to spend and account for the federal funding. And, not long after she sent the letter to the district, the communication was leaked to The Tennessean, which broke the story just a few hours later.

The expectation among Bransford Avenue leadership is that MNPS will satisfy Schwinn’s concerns and demonstrate its plans to spend and account for the grant money correctly. But, the broader issue, multiple sources tell the Tennessee Lookout, is the persistent rumors that Lee could exercise an opaque state law and assume oversight of MNPS or perhaps one cluster within the district such as the Whites Creek cluster. By leaking the letter, the Lee administration gave the false impression of malfeasance or negligence by MNPS, when the reality is that spending federal grant funds and accounting for reimbursements is commonplace in the bureaucracy of public education. In fact, MNPS is not the only district with outstanding grant funds.

The statute giving Lee the power to take over MNPS includes the requirement that it is found to have failed at addressing administrative issues identified by the state. So, the letter and the dispute over the grant funds could be the first foray into a takeover. Leaking the letter to the media certainly fueled that speculation. Schwinn’s letter demanded immediate response from MNPS detailing how the grant funds have been spent as a prerequisite for the district receiving earmarked funds from the most recent stimulus package.

The Nashville school board alluded to concerns of state takeover in a vague letter sent last week to Metro Council and Nashville Mayor John Cooper. That letter didn’t directly address the potential of state takeover, but lamented the possibility of “losing local decision-making.”

  The Whites Creek area is a historically under-resourced community, so I am sure the state would not look to completely disregard the needs and asks of this neighborhood.   – Christiane Buggs, chair, Metro Nashville Public Schools Board

An education stakeholder told the Lookout that the rumors of a state takeover prompted the letter.

“When the state of Tennessee makes decisions for MNPS, or does anything to remove the authority of the board of education to make decisions about MNPS, it is officials that generally answer to other parts of the state that will be making decisions and running our schools, not the citizens and parents of Nashville,” the school board members said in their letter.

Nashville school board chairwoman Christiane Buggs acknowledged she heard the possibility of a state takeover of the Whites Creek cluster from a constituent.

“I am hopeful this is not true because all of our neighbors have the right to manage, engage with and oversee their local schools,” Buggs said. “The Whites Creek area is a historically under-resourced community, so I am sure the state would not look to completely disregard the needs and asks of this neighborhood.

“More than anything, it should be noted that (MNPS Director Adrienne Battle) and the district are committed to the success of the Whites Creek cluster, which is why it is one of the first ones to be addressed in the Metro Schools ReimaginED (schools consolidation) initiative to strengthen academic pathways and improve student outcomes.”

Buggs added that she was “confused” by the intent of Schwinn’s letter to the district regarding the grant funds.

Metro Nashville School Board Member Christiane Buggs (Photo: MNPS)
Metro Nashville School Board Member Christiane Buggs (Photo: MNPS)

“I do appreciate that school systems across the state, including the state-run ASD, have not yet been reimbursed for federally generated dollars either. So I look forward to some direction from her. And considering that we as district leaders have had no direct conversation around this with Commissioner Schwinn, I look forward to hearing from her in the future around the letter’s intent.”

Lee’s relationship with Cooper has been especially strained lately. Besides threatening to take away education funds, Lee suffered political embarrassment when his most significant legislative accomplishment – the voucher law to give families tax dollars to pay for private school tuition – was deemed unconstitutional by a Nashville judge. That decision was subsequently upheld on appeal. At issue in that lawsuit was the fact that the voucher law only applied to Shelby and Davidson counties.

Cooper also joined into a separate lawsuit by Tennessee’s urban school districts arguing that the state’s basic education program funding formula doesn’t commit enough funds to Nashville and Memphis, where a disproportionate number of English-learning students, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students live. That lawsuit is scheduled for trial later this year.

One reason stakeholders doubt lawmakers will push the bill to take away funds from districts that don’t offer in-person instruction is it will only fuel the legal argument that the state treats Nashville and Memphis differently from the rest of Tennessee’s school districts when it comes to education funding. Surely, the state Attorney General wouldn’t want to face the headache of defending another action that harms MNPS and Shelby County at a time when those districts are arguing in court they’re not receiving a fair amount of BEP dollars.

Cooper and Lee have also been in public disagreement about the government’s response to the pandemic, with Cooper calling for the state to implement a regional strategy instead of leaving county mayors to fend for themselves with their own health orders that may be different than the rules in neighboring counties.

Most recently, Cooper’s administration irked Lee when it pushed to renegotiate the infrastructure agreement offered to the River North developers as part of the economic incentive package to lure 2,500 jobs from the technology firm Oracle. Although that project is on track and is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, Cooper’s team refused to give up city land to relocate a cement plant located at the property. It’s also widely believed that Metro won’t offer per-job grants, which Cooper’s predecessors typically did for such corporate relocations in the past. The negotiating by Cooper saved the city over $6 million but slowed the deal.

Surely, the state Attorney General wouldn’t want to face the headache of defending another action that harms MNPS and Shelby County at a time when those districts are arguing in court they’re not receiving a fair amount of BEP dollars.

Although Lee has been at odds with Cooper and MNPS, it may still be unlikely that he pursues even a partial takeover. The moment Lee pursued a takeover he would be inviting a lawsuit. 

And, even if Lee did win in court, the business of a hostile takeover of MNPS would be wrought with political controversy and pushback from parents, teacher union leaders and politicians.

That’s quite a heavy lift for an education commissioner who must implement a bevy of new initiatives approved in last week’s special session and perhaps implement the voucher law if the lower court’s ruling is reversed on appeal. The state’s own Achievement School District, created to transform the lowest performing schools, has shown mostly poor results to date.

Whether Lee will push to take over MNPS or even increase state oversight remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that Nashville education leaders do not trust the governor. The mere fact the school board fears such a takeover highlights the dysfunctional relationship between MNPS and the Lee Administration.