State commissioner of education provides insight into process of cities forming own school districts


State commissioner of education provides insight into process of cities forming own school districts

By LANDON WOODROOF

Some Brentwood parents have renewed calls for the city to conduct a feasibility study into forming its own school district, as the Brentwood Home Page reported Monday night.

Those parents are concerned that Brentwood is contributing a disproportionate amount of funding to local schools as compared to other cities in the Williamson County Schools system.

On Wednesday afternoon, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Dr. Candice McQueen was in Franklin speaking at a Teacher Leader Summit. The Tennessee Teacher Leadership Collaborative held the summit.

The Home Page caught up with McQueen afterwards to learn more about the process that cities have to undergo in forming their own school systems.

First off, McQueen said she was familiar with calls in Brentwood for a feasibility study, but only through news reports.

She focused on the Department of Education’s role in the process.

Well the department itself by law has the interest in making sure the actual school district can do what it says it’s going to do,” she said. “That’s our role. If a municipality or a certain segment of a county makes the decision that they’re going to break off, we have to make the determination, Is that feasible in terms of how you’ve put together your budget? Is it instructionally sound in the decisions that you’ve made?”

The Department of Education actually has no say on whether or not a municipality decides to form its own district. A U.S. News article from last month says that Tennessee is one of only three states in the country where a municipality can choose to start its own school district without “approval from any county or state authority.”

State law does require the department, however, to review a municipality’s plans for a new school district after the decision has been made to form one.

Our oversight is once you have actually become your own school district, we certainly have oversight at that point,” McQueen said. “Our charge is to make sure that you…can do what you say you can do. But ultimately you’re making the decision whether you’re going to break out or not.”

In 1998, the Tennessee state legislature banned the formation of new municipal school districts. But that ban was reversed in 2013. Under current law, any municipality can choose to start its own school district by holding a public referendum. There is a requirement that the new district have at least 1,500 students in it, according to an article in Chalkbeat from last month.

The change in the state law in 2013 led to six municipalities in Shelby County breaking off and starting their own districts. Currently, four municipalities around Chattanooga are considering doing the same thing, according to the U.S. News article.

The Chalkbeat story says that a committee from Signal Mountain, in Chattanooga, recently met with leaders of the special school districts in Shelby County to get feedback. That committee is expected to write a report this fall examining the feasibility of Signal Mountain starting a school district.

McQueen said she had been in touch with Signal Mountain. She is providing them with feedback on initial budget projections for a school district.

From a philosophical standpoint, McQueen said that the department always encourages municipalities and school systems to try to work out their differences among themselves before making the decision to go their separate ways.

“[W]e believe it’s important for the current school board and the current director of schools to really try to engage with groups of parents or mayors in smaller towns and say let’s come together and try to determine what the issues are and work toward a solution,” she said. “That would be number one.”

In the event that no consensus can be reached, McQueen said she hoped people would take a measured approach on what to do next.

“And then number two, if there’s no solution, they can really work together then to determine over a period of time, it can’t be quick … is this truly going to be the best educational decision for us, two years, three years down the line,” she said. “If it’s too fast then you may make choices that ultimately are harmful for years to come.”

Even if Brentwood did vote to form its own school district,  numerous steps would have to be taken to make that district a reality.

In April, the Home Page checked in with WCS Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney to get his feedback on the idea. He described a list of challenges that Brentwood would have to meet to gets its school district up and running.

Looney said, for instance, that Brentwood would have to get its own buses and hire its own administrative staff to run the district. Then, they would have to build their own schools or acquire them from the county. Lastly, they would have to go through an accreditation process.

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