NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The people trying to get taxpayer funding for those privately-operated schools endorsed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee are now trying to convince the public they're separate from Hillsdale College.
That's the conservative Michigan college at the center of controversy over its president's view of public school teachers.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates has discovered new evidence that reveals the true Hillsdale connection, including more hidden-camera video from the reception hosted by Hillsdale president Larry Arnn for Lee.
That's the same video where Arnn famously declared that public school teachers come from "the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges."
Following the release of that controversial video, three Tennessee school boards voted down applications from the Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Education to open charter schools in their districts.
American Classical has now appealed to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission.
Facing a firestorm of criticism across the state, the charter management organization tried to distance itself from Hillsdale.
"They distanced themselves and reassured me that they were not part of Hillsdale, that there was no association or affiliation," Rutherford County school board chair Tiffany Johnson told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
And when the Jackson-Madison County school board in West Tennessee rejected the group's application, American Classical filed an appeal with the state claiming "ACE is a separate organization from Hillsdale College" and "none of those individuals" who appeared before the board "is or ever has been employed by Hillsdale College."
But go back to the hidden camera video, where Arnn had appeared with Gov. Bill Lee.
"We started a charter management organization because we don't take any money from the government," Arnn told the audience.
Watch the video excerpt below:
There, the Hillsdale president boasted about how, when the charter management organization needed a CEO, he had personally recruited Hillsdale graduate Joel Schellhammer, who had plans for the business world.
"I said, you're going to have to put that off," Arnn recounted.
"He said, why? I said you are going to start a charter management organization. And he said, what's that? And I replied, you'll figure it out."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates also obtained a contract that Hillsdale signed with another charter school operator, showing that the college expects to be "the first and primary source of models, resources and guidance" for school operations; that, in the search for a principal, Hillsdale would take the lead and notify the school of the names and contact information for potential candidates; and that Hillsdale would provide teacher education "of a duration, scope and location to be determined by Hillsdale."
While the contract says the final decisions would rest with the charter school operator, Hillsdale would retain the right to revoke its relationship with the charter school if it did not like those decisions.
In fact, the nine people listed in the appeal as board members included the Hillsdale chief of staff, the Hillsdale vice president of finance, the Hillsdale vice president of admissions, a member of the Hillsdale board of directors, the former superintendent of the college's own private Hillsdale Academy and two Hillsdale graduates.
The other two board members were a longtime charter school activist and former Tennessee state Sen. Delores Gresham.
And, in Rutherford County, school officials noted that, in American Classical Education's application to open a charter school there, "Hillsdale" is mentioned more than 450 times.
Rutherford County developed this chart showing the tangled web of relationships.
"There is support for curriculum, professional developments, operations, who's going to be doing the oversight, who is going to be providing the resources, who's the financial backer. It's all directly tied to Hillsdale," said Kelly Chastain, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
The deputy superintendent for Jackson-Madison County said that, when American Classical Academy was asked how they would deal with teacher shortages, their answer revealed even greater ties.
"They talked about that they typically have about 80% of their teaching at charter schools would come directly from Hillsdale," Williams said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Their teachers would come from Hillsdale?"
"They said about 80 percent would come from Hillsdale College where they are graduates. That was one of the ways they were able to retain teachers a lot better than most places."
In addition, an article in the Hillsdale college newspaper noted that the new CEO "wants ACE's schools to be places where Hillsdale graduates apply for jobs."
He also called the group's work "an extension of the mission of the college."
As for the controversy surrounding Hillsdale, school officials insist that was not a driving force as they followed state guidelines for reviewing charter school applications.
"Their affiliation with Hillsdale is not important to us," Jackson-Madison County's Vivian Williams said.
"It's important to us that we follow the state of Tennessee scoring rubric and that we are, in reviewing that, providing the best possible education for our students."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "But for them to deny a close relationship with Hillsdale, it's just not honest."
"That's correct," Williams answered. "It's not honest."
The listed applicant for the charter schools, Hillsdale chief-of-staff Michael Harner, declined NewsChannel 5's request for an on-camera interview, providing the following statement instead:
“American Classical Education (ACE) is an independent nonprofit organization that satisfies the Tennessee legal requirements and has the necessary experience and competency to serve as a charter school sponsor and governing body.
"ACE was formed by friends and associates of Hillsdale College to support the efforts of parents and community members to found classical public charter schools around the country. Since submitting its amended charter school applications, ACE has continued its stated intention to transition governance of these proposed charter schools to parents and community members. Those individuals have formed a Tennessee nonprofit organization with a board composed of Tennessee residents and chaired by Dolores Gresham. Several other Tennessee public charter schools, including Commission-authorized schools, have made this transition from being sponsored and governed by a national nonprofit organization to being governed by a board of Tennessee community members.”
NewsChannel 5 Investigates reached out to Gresham requesting an on-camera interview to gauge her direct knowledge of the arrangements.
Gresham declined, insisting that questions be submitted in writing.
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