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Thoughts on Emerald Academy's Application, Pt. 2: Who's Behind It, Plus Some Numbers

Last week, on Mar. 25, the Emerald Youth Foundation hosted the last in a series of community meetings intended to provide information and gather support for the non-profit's spinoff, Emerald Charter Schools. The evening was basically the launch of Emerald Academy, the first charter proposed by the organization, which it hopes to open in 2015. Our sometimes writer Betty Bean attended the meeting and reported on it for this week's Shopper. She writes:

Before the summer is over, the school board will approve the district's first charter school. ... The school board will vote it up or down before the start of next school year.
They'll vote yes. ... 
It's going to happen. State law is favorable to charters, and it's gotten hard for local school districts to say no.

I attended the meeting, too. (You can read a Storify of my live-tweeting the meeting, if you missed it. There are typos, for which I apologize.) 

This is what the school's all about, the founders say.

I meant to blog about it last week, but other stories got the best of me. Still, one thing I didn't have time to tweet stuck with me. The executive director of EYF, Steve Diggs, who is also serving as the president of the board of directors for ECS, called the process to get Emerald Academy open a "journey for justice."

Now, there are all kinds of snarky comments one could make about that phrasing -- I might have thought of a few in my head -- but whatever you think of Emerald Academy in particular or charter schools in general, it's clear Diggs really believes this. And he's not the only one. Knox County Schools board member Doug Harris was the only board member to attend the meeting (Gloria Deathridge got there just as the presentation ended), and he was pretty excited about it.

"When he said this was a 'journey for justice' -- that really resonated with me. These kids deserve a school where they can succeed," Harris told me after the meeting. "Even if it's not approved, I think this will have elevated the level of education in the community."

Harris is on the EYF board, and he's a proponent of charter schools anyway, so it's no surprise he's passionate about the plans for Emerald Academy. (Harris, by the way, still stands by his offer to recuse himself from voting on the application should KCS determine it's a conflict of interest; there's been no decision to date.) But as the application itself shows, there are lot of people even more powerful than Harris who also support the school. (Harris noted, "I couldn't be more thrilled with the quality of people involved. I think they'll really help moving it forward.")

The ECS board itself has some notable names: besides Diggs, there's Randy Gibson of Lawler-Wood, Alvin Nance of Knoxville's Community Development Corporation, attorney Tim McLemore, former Farragut High School and Bearden High School principal Ed Hedgepeth, Renda Burkhart, Guille Cruze, Sherra Robinson, and Danielle South. 

You might know South better as the Director of Public Policy & Education for the Knoxville Chamber. She told me, "The Chamber hasn't taken a position yet," in regards to the school, but it also doesn't have a problem with her serving on the ECS board. Read into that what you will. 

Also, there are other Chamber members who have submitted letters of support with the application: Dale Keasling, the president of Home Federal Bank; Stanley Griffin of Beaty Chevrolet; Joel Hornberger of Cherokee Health Systems; Lance Robinson, the president of the Equitas Group; Jerry Askew, the senior vice-president of Tennova; Jerry Daves, the president of Wood Properties; Tommy Schmid, the vice-president of FSG Bank; and Stephen South, the president of South College. 

There are also letters of support from a lot of other non-profits -- the Boys & Girls Clubs, ETTAC, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Compassion Coalition, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Helen Ross McNabb Center, the Knoxville Leadership Foundation, Knoxville Fellows, the Restoration House, Wesley House, and the YWCA.

Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Irwin has a letter of support, too. And so does U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr., who's practically effusive in his praise.

"As part of my responsibilities, I am often called upon by organizations to endorse their proposals for various types of assistance. While I do not hesitate to support groups that help to enhance the quality of living in our area, it is rare that I have the opportunity to give my unrestricted affirmation to one group's efforts," Duncan writes.

I'm not quite as sure as Betty that Emerald Academy is a done deal, but it's clear that the level of support from this many people with this many deep ties to the community will go a long way towards swaying any votes that might be on the fence. Still, I think the biggest question will be whether the board really wants to divert funds from an already tight budget. 

Emerald's application estimates revenues of only $918,870 in state and federal funds diverted from KCS's budget in its first year, based on current state per-student spending. But by the school's fifth year, when it plans to have 540 students, that cost will rise to almost $4.5 million. 

Sure, that's just over 1 percent of KCS's proposed $433.7 million budget for next year. Yet when that budget also proposes $2 million in cuts, including eliminating at least 12 jobs and reducing hours for several other employees, can you justify the additional expense to open what's basically a private school with public money? 

Potential Emerald Academy students showing off the required uniforms with Steve Diggs.

Alternatively, do you approve it because you're scared the state will cut your funding if you don't, as happened in Nashville? (Given that the governor and his sister-in-law are on EYF's board of trustees, it's easy to assume the state department of education is in favor of ECS existing.)

The KCS board has 90 days to take up the application. Since they're in the middle of the budget process right now, I don't see a preliminary meeting on Emerald Academy happening before the end of the month, at the very earliest. In any case, nothing has been scheduled so far.

We'll be back Monday with more thoughts on the proposal, including all the nitty-gritty details. (Yes, we know this is taking forever, but so is sending emails back and forth to ECS and KCS for clarifying all those details.) We're also trying to find out how Emerald's curriculum plans stack up to KCS, but seeing as the application is almost 300 pages, no one we've asked for comment has had time to wade through it all yet. If you've made it through and know something about education policy and want to share your thoughts for possible attribution, feel free to email me.

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