Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney is pushing back on a notification the district received from the Tennessee Department of Education that said it is not in compliance with a federal law having to do with the issue of school suspensions.

According to an email to Franklin Home Page from the Department of Education’s Communications office, a letter was sent in January to WCS and 24 other districts that were identified as showing significant disproportionality in one or more areas based on guidelines stated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004. It requires states to collect and examine data to determine if significant disproportionality based on race and ethnicity is occurring in the state and the local educational agencies (LEAs) of the state.

Those districts found to be out of compliance must “redirect 15 percent of their IDEA funds for coordinated early intervening services to address areas of disproportionality,” according to the email, and that amounts to over $900,000 for WCS.

Therein lies Looney’s main concern with the state’s notification, that the amount of money the district needs to set aside is too much for what would be required to address the issue. He declined to name the high school, but the data shows that of 34 students suspended through the zero tolerance policy over three years at one particular school, 20 were African American. (Centennial High School has the highest number of minority students of high schools in the district, at around 35 percent.)

“The theory behind the federal government’s position is you need to intervene early for any kids at risk,” Looney told Board of Education members at the most recent board policy meeting. “Having said that, I think we’re doing that to the extent that we can.

“The bigger challenge is, we can’t afford to set aside almost a million dollars for a problem that affects 20 kids. If we can’t get the [Department of Education] commissioner [Penny Schwinn] to change her position, that’s a million dollar shortfall that we have in our program that we will have to make up in some way. We would have to take part of our budget [next year’s] to do these preventive practices.”

To help fortify his stance against the state, Looney said he has been in contact with superintendents from other districts that also received notifications. Some of those include neighboring districts Metro Nashville Public Schools, Rutherford County Schools, Wilson County Schools, Maury County Schools and Sumner County Schools, among others.

“I have been communicating with other directors of schools — mostly from the larger districts — and we all agree this is absurd,” Looney said. “We can’t let this go. I intend on signing a letter to the commissioner asking for reconsideration.

“We were aware that we went over [the number to be within compliance], but discipline is discipline is discipline,” Looney added. “Most of the discipline offenses were zero tolerance offenses, so under law we don’t have a choice. We just think it’s an egregious position for the [state] department to take.”

The issue is further complicated by the fact the Department of Education had last year revised its calculation of significant disproportionality, which led to more districts being out of compliance.

“Under the previous calculation we were not disproportionate,” WCS attorney Dana Ausbrooks said at the March 4 policy meeting. “In addition, one of the other pieces with this letter is the federal government didn’t think these new regulations should go into effect until 2020. That’s another piece of the puzzle [and why] we’re wanting the state of Tennessee to reconsider. This is first time WCS has been dinged for this.”

According to the letter dated Jan. 11, actions that districts are required to take to address the disproportionality include:

  • Review policies, practices, and procedures, in accordance with the Tennessee Department of Education processes, to ensure compliance with the requirements of IDEA
  • Report publicly on revisions to policies, practices, and procedures consistent with the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and its implementing regulations in 34 CFR Part 99, and Section 618(b)(1) of the IDEA
  • Set aside 15 percent of its IDEA, Part B (sections 611 and 619) funds to provide comprehensive coordinated early intervening services (comprehensive CEIS) to address factors contributing to the significant disproportionality.

Districts had the opportunity to appeal the state’s findings. Nine did so, and only two were successful in their appeal.