Haslam, Martin are board members of group approved to operate Knox charter school

Gov. Bill Haslam sits on the board of the local youth foundation that successfully applied to create Knox County’s first charter school, reports the News Sentinel.

But Haslam, who supports the idea of more charter schools in Tennessee, had no direct input on Emerald Academy, those close to the school proposal said. Nor did Haslam or those connected to him reach out to Knox County Schools officials during the vetting process for Emerald Academy, according to interviews by the News Sentinel.

Haslam is an honorary member of the board of trustees for the Emerald Youth Foundation, and so is Larry Martin, his longtime aide and current (commissioner of the Department of Finance and Administration).

“I have not had a conversation with (Haslam) on the charter school,” said Steve Diggs, executive director of the Emerald Youth Foundation. “He had no direct input.”

Knox County school board members interviewed by the News Sentinel said they were not lobbied to support the school, which the board approved this past week. The academy is intended for inner-city students and could open as early as 2015 while pulling $4.8 million in public school funding, school officials estimate.

“This is all a bunch of B.S. if people think there’s some hoodoo in there,” school board Chairwoman Lynne Fugate said about any behind-the-scenes actions around the Emerald Academy application and its approval.

Some observers of local government and schools have taken to online forums with opinions and rumors that Haslam had direct ties to the charter school. Fugate and other school board members said there was no such link.

“No Haslams, nobody like that,” school board member Indya Kincannon told the News Sentinel.

She and other school board members said Diggs contacted them with an offer to answer questions, and that he was the only person pushing the Emerald concept.

Doug Harris, a school board member who also sits on the Emerald Youth Foundation board of trustees, said he did not contact fellow school board members either — which would have violated state open meetings law.

…Emerald Youth Foundation has a legacy of working with inner-city schools in Knox County. Since starting with summer programs in the late 1980s, its after-school, tutoring and mentor programs have expanded to present-day work with 1,350 youth in churches and schools.

…In 2011 the foundation presented Haslam and his wife, Crissy, with its Legacy Award.

Diggs said such connections are important for running a nonprofit, and that they may be relied upon to support the charter school.

“I can tell you that if you’re going to pull off a high-quality charter school in Knox County, you’re going to find a way to engage the family foundations,” he said. “You’re going to need philanthropists of all levels.”

Dee Haslam, wife of Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam and sister-in-law to Gov. Haslam, said her Emerald support is rooted in her philosophy, not politics. She’s on the foundation’s board and was one of the first people to hear about a report from Diggs’ staff that showed gaps in achievement in inner-city Knoxville.

She, with other board members, first discussed an idea that led to the proposed charter school. She added that her participation in the charter school concept was only in the Emerald board of trustee meetings. She said she did not personally lobby anyone’s support on the school board.