Education Committee presents report on its research

By Bill Short

The Oakland Educational Exploratory Committee has presented a report on its research into ways that the town can lead in improving education for its children.

In a decree issued on July 5, Mayor Scott Ferguson established the committee and charged it with:

(1) determining whether Oakland can legally create its own school system that would be entirely separate from the Fayette County School System;

(2) determining the costs of creating and operating an Oakland municipal school system;

(3) determining whether the law permits two or more cities to jointly form a school system;

(4) providing a report to Ferguson within 90 days; and

(5) organizing its findings so the data can be presented to Oakland residents for their consideration.

The report, presented during an Oct. 25 meeting at Oakland City Hall, acknowledged that the committee employed Southern Educational Strategies, a firm that provides consulting services for school districts, including those planned by Shelby County’s six suburban municipalities.

It also noted that Dr. James Mitchell, a founding partner in SES, provided research and attended the committee’s meetings.

Mitchell recommended that the committee examine three types of school districts: (1) municipal, (2) special and (3) charter.

The report stated that a municipal school district would be limited to the geographic boundaries of Oakland and could not levy a tax. But the committee also said such a district would require a tax increase.

While acknowledging that state law currently prohibits Oakland from having a municipal school district, the report also noted that Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays is expected to rule on whether the law violates the Tennessee Constitution.

“But even if the law is not a factor,” the committee wrote, “there is an insufficient number of students within the city limits of Oakland to create a municipal district.”

The report stated that a special school district would not be limited to Oakland’s geographic boundaries and could be defined by the town. Although the district could levy a tax, it would also require a tax increase.

But the committee noted that Tennessee law currently prohibits a special school district.

The report stated that a charter school district, which is “becoming popular” in many parts of the United States, is typically chartered by a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. While calling it unlikely that a charter district would require a tax increase, the committee said the Fayette County School Board would have oversight.

The report stated that the committee met with Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, which “works closely” with the Tennessee General Assembly.

“If a meeting is scheduled for the residents to ask questions about charter schools,” the committee members wrote, “we recommend inviting Mr. Throckmorton, so all questions can be answered with utmost clarity.”

The report stated that the costs of creating and operating a school district in Oakland would primarily be applicable to municipal and special school districts, which would have budgets “entirely separate” from the Fayette County School System. A charter school district would involve funding by the state and from the county school district.

The report acknowledged that two or more cities can jointly operate a school district. But it noted that such an arrangement would be more applicable to the municipal and special school districts, where “operating efficiencies” can be realized.

The committee also described some of the options that would be available to start a charter school in Oakland.

It noted that an eligible public school could convert to a public charter school if the parents of 60 percent of the children enrolled in it or 60 percent of the teachers assigned to it sign a petition seeking conversion and the county school board agrees to it.

At the time of conversion, any teachers or administrators in the charter school would be allowed to transfer into vacant positions for which they are certified in other schools in the school system prior to the employment of new personnel for those positions.

Personnel who transferred into vacant positions in other schools within the school system would suffer no “impairment, interruption or diminution” of the rights and privileges of existing teachers and administrators.

Beginning with Oakland Elementary School, which currently has kindergarten through the fifth grade, the report stated that conversion would be one of the “easiest routes” to take in forming a charter school system. During the charter school’s second year, the fifth-grade students would become the first set of sixth-graders to be added to the charter group.

A new grade would be added each year as the original group of K-5 students progressed to the next grade level. The report stated that, at this rate, it would take seven years to have a set of charter schools for Oakland that extended from grades K-12.

“This option would take longer, but would prevent the gaps of grades that are waiting to be added to this configuration,” the committee wrote. “This slower method would probably be easier for the parents, since the original group of K-5 students would be accustomed to the routines, procedures and policies of the charter schools.”

The report stated that another option would be to start a charter high school with only ninth-graders during the same year that the K-5 group converts to a charter school. The charter group would add the sixth and 10th grade in the second year, the seventh and 11th grade the third year and the eighth and 12th grade the fourth year.

The charter group would then have all grades covered under its governance: K-5 for elementary, 6-8 for the middle school and 9-12 for the high school.

“However,” the committee acknowledged, “this option does have gaps of grades that would remain as part of the public school system while waiting to be added. This could be a bit frustrating for parents with children in all the different groups.”