Hopson questions SCS role in ASD adding grades
Commercial Appeal - 4/7/2017
April 07--Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Thursday he's "sympathetic to the plight" of middle school families in two Achievement School District schools left in limbo by legal issues, but he's not sure how he or his board can help.
Hopson said he's not aware of anything in state law that gives his school board the authority to make decisions for schools in other districts.
The comments cast doubt on whether the ASD schools will find a way to keep their students until the end of their middle school years. That could mean the 36 seventh-graders at Aspire Coleman, who find themselves in the middle of a political fight over the future of the ASD, would have to transfer to another school just for eighth grade. Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas currently has 37 students in the sixth grade.
The two schools sent letters to Hopson asking for permission to add the seventh and eighth grades to Florida-Kansas and the eighth grade at Coleman. Both had those grades in their plans before three opinions from the Tennessee Attorney General said ASD schools don't have the power to add grades on their own. The schools served only elementary grades before ASD took them over and outsourced their operations to charter networks.
"We're not aware of anything in the statute that allows us to make decisions for another school we didn't authorize," Hopson, who is also a lawyer, said.
The Tennessee Department of Education said it's not their place to authorize the additional grades, either, but that SCS could step in and approve such a request. The department said the state's pending legislation to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act may provide a legal avenue for SCS to authorize an ASD school to add grades.
"Together, we will explore all of the available legal avenues to provide for our students what is the best, least disruptive option for the upcoming school year," the department said in a statement.
Shelby County oversees charter schools, but not the ones under ASD. Charters have to go through an extensive application process to receive approval from SCS. It's unclear what process the ASD schools would need to go through to earn the right to operate additional grades.
But Hopson said district lawyers will look over the requests and that the board will "make decisions that are best for kids and families."
The three legal opinions, the last of which was issued last month, came at the request of two state legislators.
Hopson said ASD formed at a tumultuous time for SCS, between the merger with Memphis City Schools and the six suburban districts seceding the following year.
"I think when the ASD was first created, there (were) a lot of gray areas that quite frankly, given some of the challenges we were having during the merger and demerger, and managing our charter sector, we just didn't push to challenge," Hopson said. "Obviously upon reflection, I wonder about and worry about kids who have been served in grades that the law basically says you can't serve."
ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson said from the beginning of the district in 2012, ASD was under the impression it had the same rights and responsibilities as any other school district in the state. She said it "went without questioning" that if the law didn't expressly prohibit the adding of grades, it was permissible. The recent attorney general opinions changed that, and ASD will comply, she said. Grades that have already been added will be allowed to remain.
"I don't think it's reasonable looking back to expect that we would seek an AG opinion for everything the law is silent on," Anderson said.
Reach Jennifer Pignolet at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JenPignolet.
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