The Tennessee Public Charter School Commission voted unanimously on Monday to uphold Sumner County Schools’ denial of the district’s first, and so far only, charter school application.
Del Rey Education, Inc., submitted an application in January for Founders Classical Academy of Hendersonville, a charter school that would open in the fall of 2024 for grades K-8, and eventually serve students through the 12th grade.
The non-profit corporation would partner with ResponsiveEd, an operator of more than 20 similar schools in Texas and Arkansas, according to its application.
Following a committee’s recommendation that Del Rey didn’t meet the state’s standards in the areas of academics, operations or finances, the Sumner County Board of Education voted in July to deny the application.
According to state law, a charter school applicant can appeal a local board’s decision to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, a nine-member panel appointed by Gov. Bill Lee.
That panel convened on Monday to consider appeals from Founders Classical Academy of Hendersonville and Founders Classical Academy of Brentwood. The latter, proposed by Del Rey and ResponsiveEd to open in the fall of 2023, was denied by the Williamson County Board of Education in July.
Sumner County Parent Wes Duenkel told the panel he was concerned and angry about the charter school process.
“It was shocking how little effort Founders Classical Academy put into an application that was riddled with careless errors, serious omissions, troubling oversights and didn’t offer anything tangible that Sumner County Schools doesn’t already offer,” said Duenkel. “If they can’t be trusted to fill out an application, how can we trust them to teach our children?”
Duenkel noted the time spent by Sumner County administrators to vet the application.
“Taxpayers paid for all of this,” he said. “Gov. Lee and our legislators created this situation and they need to fix it… This process is ripe for waste for abuse.”
Two Sumner County parents and a grandparent spoke in favor of Founders Classical Academy, including Mia Davis.
Davis said that 64 percent of Tennessee students don’t meet grade-level expectations in English language arts while 70 percent aren’t meeting expectations in math.
She also expressed concern about the school district’s use of the Wit and Wisdom curriculum.
“Please let them come to Sumner County schools,” said Davis.
Pam Teller, whose six grandchildren attend Sumner County schools, said more than 300 families are on a waiting list at Merrol Hyde Magnet School.
There are several other families who would like for their child to attend a school like Merrol Hyde, but their children do not meet the test requirements, Teller added.
“There are hundreds of families in Sumner County that would like a classical option for their children. The support is there, there’s just no opportunity,” she said.
Sumner County Schools Chief Academic Officer Scott Langford said that the school district’s review team was thorough and fair in determining if the charter school application met the state standards.
There were significant gaps in the application academically, operationally and financially, Langford added.
In addition, the application showed little support from Sumner County parents or community members.
“And we were concerned Del Rey manages zero schools in Tennessee and zero schools in the United States,” he added.
Tess Stovall, executive director of the public charter school commission, said that the application did not meet the standard for approval.
“While there is a clear mission and vision, I cannot recommend the sponsor’s application because there lacks clear plans across the academic, operational and financial sections,” said Stovall. “Specifically… there was a lack of a plan to implement services to special populations.”
In addition, the projected student population and demographics of the school differed significantly than what the demographics of Sumner County are, she added.
Stovall also noted that while there were letters of support and petitions for a charter school in Williamson County, there was a lack of community support and parent demand for one in Sumner County.
In fact the majority of the comments the commission received were in favor of upholding the school district’s denial, Stovall added.
“Ultimately the application and the record presented to us today did not meet the standard for approval, even for a school not planning to open in 2024,” said Stovall. “My recommendation is for the commission to deny the application and provide feedback to the applicant to do further work to improve the application moving forward.”
The commission also voted 8-0 to uphold the Williamson County School Board’s decision to deny Founders Classical Academy of Brentwood.