Wednesday, November 26, 2008

School board may take on mayor

Members want own lawyer to advise on takeover issues By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • November 26, 2008 Metro school board members are positioning themselves for a possible showdown with the mayor for control of Nashville's public schools. They will vote at the next school board meeting on whether to stop using Metro Legal Department lawyers, who report to the mayor, and hire an independent lawyer to advise them on takeover issues. This comes after Metro Legal attorneys confirmed that they answered Mayor Karl Dean's questions about taking over the school district. "The school board has the right to do whatever they feel is in their best interest," mayoral spokeswoman Janel Lacy said when contacted after the meeting. "Mayor Dean is focused on improving our schools and doing what's best for our students." If board members vote to hire another attorney, it would be the school board's first split with Metro Legal, said Mary Johnston, who has represented the school district since 1996. At Tuesday's school board meeting, members said they are concerned Metro Legal has a conflict of interest because attorneys represent the board and the mayor, who was law director before running for the city's top office. After winning the post he appointed Sue Cain to oversee the department. The mayor this fall said he is preparing for a takeover should the district again fail to meet academic requirements under state law. The district is partially controlled by the state because of failing test scores and is without a director of schools. Board member Mark North, who represents the Madison area, said he will make a motion at the next meeting to hire an independent attorney. "We don't have a choice but to stand our ground," North said. "We were elected to do a job and we're going to do it." Johnston confirmed that she had been asked questions about a possible takeover. Board members said they were uncomfortable knowing she would be pressed to share information with the mayor as the process progressed. "I still have a job," Johnston said when asked for comment. The mayor has hired two new education advisers and said he plans to add more. He is raising millions in private money to fund pet school reform projects and plans to meet with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who assumed control of the school district there in 2002. The mayor also announced plans last week to consolidate management of school libraries with the public library system by July 1. Board members said it's time to start preparing a defense. "I would like us to entertain our next step in our defense of a possible takeover," said board member Gracie Porter, who represents East Nashville. "It is somewhat disturbing knowing that one of us or all of us could be dismantled. We are elected officials." State education agents this summer made drastic changes to the district's top personnel and principal lineup, and will have even more control next year if students fail to meet benchmarks again. The state would then have the authority to scrap the school board and appoint a new governing body, a decision that would ultimately come down to the governor or require a change in the law. The board is scheduled to meet finalists for the director of schools position early next month.

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