A last ditch effort to keep open a floundering virtual school failed Tuesday in the Senate, although Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he hopes to convince the administration to cut the school one last break.
“I firmly believe that that school needs to be given another chance,” Ramsey told the Post. “Now, one more year is all I’d give them. If they didn’t have the achievement then, I’d cut their legs out from under them, so to speak.”
Senators voted 17-13 against an amendment sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley to give Union County-based Tennessee Virtual Academy a one-year reprieve to avoid closure if the school’s scores improve this year. The amendment, proposed on the floor and not timely filed, needed a two-thirds majority.
However, Niceley attempted to add the language to a separate bill sponsored by Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham that would allow students from outside the school zone to attend a school taken over by the state Achievement School District.
“This school has actually taken advantage of these students,” said Dolores Gresham, chair of the Education Committee and an advocate for school choice who fought off Niceley’s amendment. “Fairness, compassion and common sense will tell you that these students have not been served well. To let it go on for another year is outrageous.”
According to the state report card, fewer than one in four students are on grade level in math, and 42 percent are at or above grade level in reading language arts. Growth in student test scores ranked one out of five, the lowest score possible.
Proponents for the school argue Tennessee Virtual Academy, run by for-profit operator K12 Inc., shouldn’t be treated any differently than traditional public schools which can fall among the lowest-performing of the state but not face closure. They argue the school should have one more year to increase test scores.
Ramsey said he walked into the Senate planning to support Niceley’s effort to give the school one last chance. Ramsey acknowledged his vote in favor probably would have garnered a few more votes in the legislation’s favor, but said he changed his mind after the debate twisted in procedural knots after learning Niceley's had other ways to bring his measure to the floor instead of amending another member's bill. The practice is legal under the Senate rules but was frowned upon in debate Tuesday night.
"I'm still, honestly, going to work with the administration to see if we can't get them to extend another year," said Ramsey.
About a dozen lawmakers sat in on a closed door briefing with a private group purporting to know confidential information about the state's homeland security and warning them of waning resources to local law enforcement.
One of the main messages legislators could take away from the briefing was that terrorists could be harboring in any state, including Tennessee, said Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, who attended the meeting.
Lawmakers said the group, the Tennessee Task Force on National and Homeland Security, did not ask legislators to pass or support specific legislation, but informed them of pent up concern by law enforcement who they say don’t have enough legal tools.
“When you’re in a bubble and you’re concerned about taxes and all sort of stuff like that, you tend not to hear things on a larger scale,” said Jeff Hartline, a spokesman for the group, which he said focuses on educating law enforcement and lawmakers.
Resumes of individuals associated with the group outlined experience in several areas, including Islamic terrorism and electromagnetic pulse weapons. When asked if the group was concerned specifically with Muslims — who have been targeted by state legislation in the past — Hartline said the group is interested with “anything that’s a threat to safety and security in Tennessee.”
The group is chaired by Jonna Z. Bianco, formerly the vice president and director of the congressional Electromagnetic Pulse Caucus. The “Task Force on National and Homeland Security” is a group one of its leaders explained as “easy to dismiss as something coming from people who might go around wearing tinfoil hats.”
Legislators said, off the record, after the closed meeting the information shared by the task force was interesting, but some details appeared taken out of context.
Hartline said aspects of the group’s message include organized crime, illegal weapons transferred in and out of the state, human trafficking, and electromagnetic pulse devices. “That’s a piece of it,” Hartline said about EMPs, “because that does present a clear and present danger to the ongoing of commerce in Tennessee.”
In 2013, state Rep. Rick Womick claimed in a legislative hearing that an electromagnetic pulse bomb was set off outside of Shelbyville, an attack local authorities said they had no record of.
“No one in the task force is half-cocked on anything,” said Hartline. “These folks are used to dealing with original sources of information, they’re used to dealing with all types of threats, intelligence gathering around the world and at home.”
The private non-profit organization was set up in 2014, according Hartline, who said the main message to lawmakers was to pay attention and support their local law enforcement.
Members in attendance largely included House members who identify with tea party ideals or are freshman lawmakers. Two Democrats also attended the meeting.
Leadership told Senators to avoid the briefing because exactly who the group is was unclear, according to a high-ranking source in the Senate. Sen. Frank Nicely was in attendance.
Media was not allowed into the event, held in the Legislative Library of the Capitol Building at 5 p.m. for more an hour Wednesday night.
Hartline, who had worked on Rep. Courtney Rogers' infamous 2012 campaign to unseat then GOP Caucus Leader Debra Maggart, said he was asked by the group last year to help introduce the non-profit organization to the General Assembly.
An invitation sent to lawmakers and obtained by Post Politics said the gathering was a closed-door meeting, open only to legislators.
Members in attendance included, but was not limited to: Republican Reps. Andy Holt, Kelly Keisling, Debra Moody, Susan Lynn, Mark Pody, Eddie Smith, Mike Sparks, Jay Reedy, Courtney Rogers, Bryan Terry and Sen. Frank Niceley, and Democratic Reps. Larry Miller and Karen Camper.
At least, that’s according to the judges of the annual Ag Day on the Hill milking contest between the two speakers. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey teamed up with Sen. Frank Niceley to beat out House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. John Forgety by a three-to-one margin.
This is the third year the two speakers have milked-off against each other and Ramsey’s first win against Harwell. However, Harwell’s victories may have had something to do with Chairman Charles Sargent pouring some extra milk in her bucket, sources said.
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, says he thinks he has the votes to pass the House-approved two-year delay in the PARCC test and Common Core if he can get it to the Senate floor. His problem, he said, is the $10 million price tag will likely put it behind the budget "and I never hear from it again."
State Sen. Frank Niceley plans to speak to an organization labeled as a hate group this weekend, although one of his legislative peers has cancelled his appearance.
Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said he plans to talk to the Southern National Congress at Fall Creek Falls this weekend about wanting state lawmakers to nominate candidates for U.S. Senate and allowing farmers to grow hemp — two proposals he’s receiving pushback from in the state legislature.
“They’re endorsing my ideas, I’m not endorsing theirs’,” said Niceley. “There’s a lot of a name-calling going around. I don’t pay any attention to that.”
Niceley said he does not consider the SNC, associated with the League of the South, as a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the group as “Neo-Confederates.”
State Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, was also scheduled to speak at the event but later decided against it, although he is still listed on the website as a speaker.
“I found out they were the wrong kind of freedom group and cancelled when I researched them further,” Matheny wrote in an email obtained by the Nashville Post.
David O. Jones, chairman of the SNC, said Matheny did not express his concerns with him, but said he would be out of town and would miss the event.
The SNC, said Jones, is a group “seeking ordered Christian liberty that kind of goes along the lines of the original Constitution of the United States… We believe whatever it says is what it meant and the federal government has gotten way out of control.” He expects up to 70 people at the event this weekend.
Anyone who associates with the group legitimizes its positions, whether or not they agree with them, said Sara Mitchell, a member of the Tennessee Anti-Racist Network.
“It sends the message that Tennessee tolerates hate and that is not a message our legislators should be sending,” she said.
One of Rep. Frank Niceley's tom turkeys was killed in a drive-by shooting:
In an emailed response to a request, TWRA officials identified the man who was cited as Paul Wayne Phillips of Knox County, with no specific address available Thursday.
He was charged with hunting from a motor vehicle and discharging a firearm from a public highway, both misdemeanors.
Niceley said the family and the surviving tom turkey made the best of the situation.
"They dressed him out (the dead turkey) and got him in the refrigerator. We'll eat him," said Niceley.
"It just tickled the young tom," he added. "It wasn't but a few minutes and he took off chasing after the hens."
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