BY LANDON WOODROOF
Brentwood City Commissioner Rhea Little’s call for the city to undertake a feasibility study on forming its own school district received a chilly reception from his fellow commissioners Thursday morning.
Although several commissioners said they might be willing to entertain such a study at some point in the future, most agreed that it would be counter-productive for the city to raise the issue at the same time that Williamson County Commissioners are weighing whether to fund school expansion projects in Brentwood. The County Commission is expected to address Plan A funding at its May 8 meeting.
Little presented the idea at the City Commission’s bi-weekly information session at the Brentwood Municipal Center.
“I just wanted to ask my fellow commissioners to consider a feasibility study on the city’s school system,” he said. “This is not really for me. As I’ve looked at it each time I think it would be a long and arduous and expensive process.”
Little pointed out that he and his children are products of Williamson County Schools, which he described as a “a great system,” but he said he was moved to ask for the study because so many Brentwood residents had voiced their concerns to him in recent weeks.
“I’m working toward May 8 and have been studying all kinds of financial information and everything about the schools trying to do everything possible to help parents, to answer any questions, and that’s what brought this about,” he said.
Little said any decision to conduct such a study would have to come from the full commission, though.
“I will definitely defer to my fellow commissioners,” he said. “If they don’t think it’s a good time or a wise idea … that is fine. It’s just something I thought needed to be discussed because it’s discussed so much in the community. And I think the truth of the matter is important. We’ve always as a commission sought information and facts.”
Before the real discussion began, City Manager Kirk Bednar took a moment to clarify what he saw as the possible outcome of the meeting. Little had envisioned a 60 to 90 day study that would not cost the city any money. Bednar said such a study “would not be what I would call a true, full-blown feasibility study.” It would be more general than that. If the commissioners approved it, the city would instead gather “high-level information” such as “the process, the law, the financial arrangements” surrounding the formation of a school district.
If, after that, the commissioners wanted to move forward, then the city would undertake “what I would consider to be a much more in-depth feasibility study that maybe takes a full year and actually does a financial plan and all the rest of that stuff that would cost city money,” Bednar said.
“I’m not opposed to answers and information, but I think the timing’s horrible,” Commissioner Ken Travis said, introducing a line of argument that would be echoed by others.
In his view, it was unwise to broach such a subject while County Commissioners were in the process of deciding the fate of Plan A.
“I think if we gave a positive note to this right now it might give some of those County Commissioners on the fence a reason to say, ‘Hey let’s just see what Brentwood’s gonna do,’” he said. “I just don’t want that to happen right now.”
Commissioner Anne Dunn said the decision to leave Williamson County Schools and start a new school system “would be the biggest decision in this city’s history.”
Like Travis, she thought the present was an inauspicious time to take any steps toward a decision of that magnitude.
“I just think for it to come up in the middle of a campaign when emotions are high—and I know you’re well-intended—is not the time for us to step off that cliff right now,” Dunn said.
She also expressed a fear of alienating County Commissioners in the fight for Plan A approval.
“I’d like to think that everybody in politics is noble, but we know sometimes that people do look for excuses not to vote for things, and this almost smacks of well we’re taking our football and going home,” she said. “I don’t want to give that impression to the people in the county that we need so desperately and we need to work with to make this Plan A work.”
Moreover, Dunn framed the idea of approving a feasibility study at the present time as a drastic and ineffectual response to the rezoning challenge at hand.
“The folks right now who need help, this plan does nothing for them,” she said. “It’s like my going to the emergency room and saying I have indigestion, and the doctor saying, ‘Well let’s take out your appendix.’ That’s not gonna solve my indigestion. Let’s deal with the problem that’s right there in front of us.”
Nevertheless, like several other commissioners, she did not rule out the idea of endorsing such a study some time in the future.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t look at this later, but right now I don’t see any point in tying up anybody’s time to do this until we get this other issue solved,” she said.
Commissioner Betsy Crossley was likewise skeptical of the necessity of the study.
“First of all, I don’t really much care for duplication of government services,” she said. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I think we can hardly say our system is broken.”
She also voiced the apprehension that a feasibility study could prove detrimental to securing Plan A funding.
“I would highly recommend at this point we wouldn’t even consider duplication of services,” she said. “We have a great system. We need to support that system the best way we can. Plan A is the way it needs to happen because that is the best plan in my own opinion for this school system, which has been so successful over the years and continues to help our region.”
Mayor Regina Smithson described being “totally taken off guard” when she first saw Little’s Facebook post announcing the study idea because she feared it “would really throw a little bit of a curve to the County Commission.”
She said the focus of the City Commission should be on trying to make things better for those buffeted by the winds of the rezoning debate.
“There’s so much emotion and so rightfully so,” she said. “These parents and kids and property owners, this is affecting our entire city.”
Backing up the comments of some of the other commissioners, she said it was most important for the City Commission to look toward May 8.
“We are this close to May 8, seeing what they’re going to do,” she said. “So I think we should continue to work on May 8, working with a number of parents we’ve all worked with, continue to call our County Commissioners.”
That view was underscored by Commissioner Mark Gorman.
“I’ve been spending my time lobbying the County Commissioners who don’t represent Brentwood,” he said. “I would echo all of the sentiment here. This would be something that would be very major. Let’s be thoughtful and purposeful about this. Let’s not kind of muddy the water and have some noise right now.”
Vice Mayor Jill Burgin backed up Little’s position somewhat by admitting that, while she did not support leaving the county school system, she had heard from many constituents who raised the issue.
“In my heart it doesn’t make sense to leave a successful school system like Williamson County Schools,” she said. “We all know the value of Williamson County Schools. But I do acknowledge the many questions that we get. It gets brought up more than I would think.”
She said she thought it would be worth gathering more information to be able to answer their concerns.
“Rather than just dismiss the question, I would like to have some high-level details about what it would involve,” she said.
Throughout the meeting, Little emphasized that he was not advocating for a new school system.
“We don’t have a failing school system, we have a fabulous school system, one of the best in the nation,” he said.
The feasibility study idea had much less to do with his personal feelings on the issue than it did with his desire to respond to the concerns of Brentwood residents.
“It just truly was because I couldn’t answer, and had so many citizens asking the question,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, after it was clear there was no support for any further exploration of a new school district at this time, Little said he was nevertheless grateful for the discussion.
“One of the things I love about serving Brentwood as a City Commissioner [is] our cooperation and coming together,” he said. “I appreciate that you all understand that my intentions were for what’s best for the parents and the city.”
The information session was attended by several Brentwood parents with personal investment in the school funding debate.
One of those parents, Susannah MacMillan, has three children in WCS who would be rezoned outside of the city if Plan B goes forward. She said she has personally contacted 14 County Commissioners about the issue as well as Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson.
The meeting on Thursday gave her confidence that Brentwood’s City Commissioners were doing their best to try to ensure Plan A funding was approved.
“I just want to say that I support that the Brentwood City Commissioners are doing everything they can with the school board and with the County Commission so our children don’t get rezoned, and I greatly appreciate that because we need their help,” she said.
Macmillan said she sees the rationale behind not conducting a feasibility at the present moment, but left open the possibility of doing one in the future.
“If it comes to a feasibility study and that needs to happen, sure,” she said. “I know it may not need to happen right now. We want to stay with Williamson County Schools as parents because we know they’re great, that’s why we moved here. But we also don’t want to get rezoned again in three years or five years if the master plan isn’t approved.”