Legislature gives final OK to rewrite of charter TN schools law, $6M in new funding

The Senate has given final legislative approval to the “Tennessee High Quality Charter Schools Act,” which authorizes spending up to $6 million in state funds on charter schools. The Senate vote Wednesday was 25-1. The House approved earlier 78-8.

From Chalkbeat Tennessee’s report:

The bill (HB310) would replace Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law.

“This law will ensure Tennessee authorizes high-quality charter schools for years to come,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, one of the sponsors.

The measure was developed by the State Department of Education in an effort to address the often rocky relationships between Tennessee’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The overhaul clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure.

Local districts will be able to charge an authorizer fee to cover the cost of charter oversight — something that school systems have sought since the first charter schools opened in the state in 2003.

The bill also establishes a fund of up to $6 million for facilities. That’s a boon to charter organizations that are too cash-strapped to pay rent and maintain their school buildings, said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

“It’s really an equity issue,” Bugg said of the facilities issue. “You have charter schools serving a majority of students of color, low-income, and for them to have this gap in funding, it takes dollars away from those students.”

The proposal had widespread support from the charter sector and from officials with Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest authorizer of charter schools, which has been sorting out many of the issues addressed in the revisions.

‘Unwittingly’ approved House resolution includes praise for Nathan Bedford Forrest

The House has unwittingly approved a resolution that touts the achievements of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest after some members thought that idea had been killed in a committee, reports the Associated Press.

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, an African-American, says state Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, “pulled a fast one” in getting HR97 approved by the House on a unanimous “consent calendar” vote on April 13. That was two days after HJR92, his original resolution, died in the House State Government Committee.

The first resolution jointly honored Forrest and Sampson Keeble, Tennessee’s first black state legislator. The portion honoring Forrest was deleted by Sparks during the committee hearing, but the panel still blocked approving the portion praising Keeble with Shaw, a leading critic, saying Sparks should return next year with a “clean resolution” dealing only with Keeble. (Previous post HERE.)

Sparks incorporated some of the same language on Forrest into the second resolution, which is dedicated to honoring Shane Kastler, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Lake Charles, La., and author of the book, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption, which recounts how the former slave trader “advocated for black civil rights” late in life.

“He pulled a fast one,” Shaw said. “I don’t think I owe any recognition to Mr. Forrest at all. If I could take my vote back, I would.

Sparks was unapologetic for his colleagues not knowing about the content of his resolution before they voted on it.

“Well, whose fault is that?” he said. “I can’t speak on 1,500 bills and a myriad of resolutions that come up here.”

Sparks said his resolution doesn’t hide Forrest’s leadership of the Klan or that he earned his fortune before the Civil War as a slave trader. But Sparks said that later in life, Forrest renounced the Klan, “became a Christian and stood up for African-Americans.”

Forrest supporters point to his speech before the all black “Jubilee of Pole Bearers” in Memphis in 1875 where he spoke of putting black citizens into jobs at law offices, stores and farms and gave a black woman a kiss on the cheek, which was forbidden back then.

Note: There’s a format difference between the two resolutions. The first was a House joint resolution, which means it was initiated in the House with the intent of being forwarded to the Senate for approval there as well. The second is just a House resolution, meaning it does not go to the Senate and stands alone with House-only approval.

AG lawsuit targets law firm soliciting families of Chattanooga school bus crash victims

News release from Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III today announced the filing of a lawsuit against a Texas law firm, its sole attorney, and two investigators working for the firm. The civil enforcement action, filed in Hamilton County Chancery Court, alleges The Witherspoon Law Group PLLC, based in Dallas, Texas has engaged in the unlawful solicitation of accident victims in Tennessee.

The lawsuit names The Witherspoon Law Group, attorney Nuru Witherspoon, and investigators Alphonso McClendon and Glen Smith and alleges improper and unlawful contact with families of victims in a Chattanooga school bus crash. It is a violation of Tennessee law for attorneys to solicit business within 30 days of a tragedy.

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Speedy governor signs IMPROVE tax package into law

Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law the “IMPROVE Act,” including increases in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, on Wednesday — just two days after it gained final legislative approval, according to the governor’s press secretary, Jennifer Donnals.

That’s rapid processing, both for the legislative staff and the governor’s office. Often it takes a week or so for a bill to go through the “engrossing” process and other steps in formal requirements for presentation of a bill in final version to the governor. And then the governor has 10 days (counting Saturdays, but not Sundays), once a bill reaches his desk, to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Presumably, the governor and legislative leaders simply wanted the process complete as they  move to wrap up work on the state budget in the coming week or two. Action on the budget has been delayed this year – last year, the legislative session ended on April 20th – because several budget provisions hinged on whether or not the IMPROVE Act was approved or not.

In an email to media, Donnals says a more ballyhooed “ceremonial signing” will be scheduled at a later date. That will give legislative leaders and other dignitaries a chance to watch (and perhaps make speeches) as the governor goes through the motions of signing again a bill that has already become law.

School voucher bill dies in House Budget Sub

This year’s leading school voucher bill, declared a “pilot project” that would apply only in Shelby County, died quietly in the House Budget Subcommittee Wednesday.

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, sponsor of HB126, officially put off further consideration until next year in the Budget Subcommittee. Voucher bills have failed repeatedly in the past six years and proponents had hoped that narrowing this year’s version to just Shelby County would change the tradition.

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Republican Governors Association bashes Dean; Dean bashes RGA

The Republican Governors Association, apparently concerned that Democrat Karl Dean might actually have a chance of winning the 2018 gubernatorial election, has already begun attacking the former Nashville mayor for supporting a property tax increase. Dean says it’s a case of “Washington politics trying to interfere in Tennessee.”

Gov. Bill Haslam is a past chairman of the RGA, which has election of Republicans as state chief executives as its primary mission. Haslam, who cannot seek reelection next year, still sits on the RGA’s executive committee.

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42 legislators ask delay in outsourcing; contract signing ahead of schedule

A week or so after 42 state legislators called for a delay in finalizing higher education outsourcing plans, Jones Lang LaSalle officials signed the company’s contract with the state ahead of schedule.

The Times-Free Press initially reported on the legislators’ letter to Gov. Bill Haslam’s outsourcing czar, Terry Cowles. It asks “that the outsourcing process wait until the General Assembly is able to study and understand the effects on our public services, economy, and state workers.”

The Nashville Post reported Tuesday in an overview of recent outsourcing developments that JLL officials actually affixed their signatures to the contract document on Friday, a week earlier than planned.

The contract is under review by the comptroller’s office before the state can officially sign off on it, but that review could be complete by the end of the day Friday, according to comptroller spokesperson John Dunn. The state’s bond counsel is also reviewing the contract to insure compliance. According to Dunn, that office has been asked to expedite its review but no firm time frame for its completion exists.

But criticism is pouring in from legislators and students, as letters and complaints fly to and fro, and University of Tennessee at Knoxville students held a large protest on Monday.

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Feds file $140K lien against former Rep. Joe Armstrong’s property

The federal government has filed a $140,000 lien against property owned by former state Rep. Joe Armstrong to collect fees and restitution in his criminal tax case, reports the News Sentinel.

The lien includes any property Armstrong owns, according to Nick McBride with the Knox County Register of Deeds. Property records show that in addition to his $426,200 Holston Hills home, Armstrong owns a Selma Avenue house worth $34,900 and co-owns a $6,000 parcel on Plymouth Street.

The lien was filed Feb. 2, one week after a judge ordered Armstrong to pay a $40,000 fine and $100,000 in unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service for filing a false tax return.

McBride said liens for restitution and fines are not uncommon in court cases like this.

When asked Tuesday if he had made any payments on his fines and restitution, Armstrong declined to answer.

State sells 119-acre Nashville prison site for $12.1M

Rogers Group Inc. has paid the State of Tennessee $12.1 million for the 119-acre vacant former Charles Bass Correctional Complex property in West Nashville, reports The Tennessean.

The Nashville-based provider of crushed stone, sand and gravel, asphalt and highway construction declined to comment on its purchase of for the site, which sits across Richland Creek from its REOStone quarry on Robertson Avenue.

…A new quarry is among possibilities for the property, which could also be used for offices and warehouse, maintenance and/or river transportation-related activities.

Earlier this year, Rogers Group made the highest offer of $12.5 million among six suitors for the site at 7177 Cockrill Bend Blvd. The 119-acre location includes the shuttered 162,700-square-foot former medium-security correctional complex.

The property borders the Cumberland River and a pair of industrial buildings. It is a half-mile from the John C. Tune Airport in an area with many warehouses and light industrial businesses.

Revised Haslam budget pays TVA $11.8M to keep Ocoee River rafting afloat

The state will provide $11.8 million to TVA to keep the Ocoee River rafting industry afloat for the next 20 years under the newly-revised version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s state budget for the coming fiscal year, reports the Times-Free Press.

The state money will reimburse TVA for the cost of power lost when the Polk County river flows freely during the spring, summer and early fall, allowing whitewater rafting operations. Otherwise, TVA diverts the river flow into a plume for electric power generation.

“It’s a huge win for Southeast Tennessee,” said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who along with Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, have been working with the whitewater industry and their representatives, Haslam, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, TVA, the U.S. Forest Service and others to come to an agreement.

Bell and Howell have legislation (HB74) moving in the General Assembly to create a new type of water authority, the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund, to support recreational water releases on the Ocoee.

The new entity would be overseen by an 11-member board and all fees currently paid by whitewater rafting customers to TVA would go into the fund.

Note: TVA now receives funds to repay for loss of power generation through a fee tacked onto each ticket sold by rafting operations, but an agreement on the matter expires in 2018. Under the new deal, TVA gets its money up front, the new development fund gets the fees (expected to be about $4 per ticket) and repays the state over a period of years.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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