Letter to Dr. Battle and the MNPS Board of Education

August 10, 2020

Dear Dr. Battle and MNPS Board of Education Members:

Ms. Buggs has shared with us that the agenda for the meeting of the MNPS Board of Education tomorrow includes a proposed lease agreement supporting Belmont University’s construction of an athletics and office building on the property of Rose Park Middle School.

We are writing to request the removal of this proposal from the Board consent agenda and the deferral of action on this item for at least two meetings in order to allow full consideration of related issues..

Ms. Buggs has been consistently attentive and responsive to neighborhood concerns regarding the proposal. She indicated in a meeting with us on July 25 that no Board action on the proposed lease would be taken at this time. She contacted us immediately when she received and reviewed the August 11 meeting agenda and encouraged us to reach out to other members of the MNPS Board.

We are grateful that the proposed lease has come before the MNPS Board and are confident that the Board will act on the proposal appropriately when provided with an opportunity to review relevant information.

Issues of concern regarding the proposed lease include:

  1. the misuse of Metro processes and Metro officials that has characterized the proposal’s history,

  2. the proposal’s relationship to Belmont’s controversial Rose Park lease,

  3. critical details regarding the proposal’s financial terms, provisions for public access, scheduling authority, and oversight and accountability mechanisms.

  4. serious questions regarding the need for the building based on the limited MNPS use of Belmont’s existing indoor batting facility at Fort Negley Park, which has been in operation very near Rose Park Middle School since 2003,

  5. the application of Belmont’s religious discrimination policies to an MNPS building, and

  6. the potential entanglement of MNPS in Belmont’s extensive ties to the private prison industry..

We have prepared a more comprehensive list of questions and concerns below to provide an overview of issues for MNPS Board members, Dr. Battle, and other MNPS officials.

We have serious objections to the premise of  the proposed lease but are committed to working toward optimal terms for the neighborhood and for MNPS if the Board determines that the proposal merits favorable consideration.

Our concerns about the proposal’s premise are grouped under ““Concern 1: Background of the MOU” and “Concern 2: Educational Need for the Proposed Building.” Other concerns, in the event of the proposal’s favorable consideration, are grouped under “Concern 3: Financial Terms  and Duration of the Proposed Lease,” “Concern 4: Building Use, Access, and Scheduling,” and “Concern 5: Protection of Public Education Values.

Recommendations with reference to many of  these concerns are presented in the attached report, prepared for Council Member Burkley Allen following a Rose Park community meeting in December 2019. Council Member Allen has agreed to support most of the items in the report, but the most important of these changes are not included in the document currently before the MNPS Board.

A Metro Audit requested by Dr. Battle has confirmed that the “previously approved Memorandum of Understanding” referenced on the agenda was negotiated in the service of private interests by an individual or individuals acting outside of official MNPS authority and later against Dr. Battle’s express direction. To our knowledge, the MOU was also not presented to or discussed by the MNPS Board at any point.

In addition to the critical problems with the content of the current MOU, we are concerned that Board action — without addressing the MOU’s origins and history — would legitimate the suggestion that the Board reviewed and approved the MOU previously, limit the future range of options open to the Board, and reinforce a dangerous precedent.

In requesting a deferral, we seek an opportunity for the MNPS Board and Dr. Battle to conduct an informed review of the proposal based on MNPS values, priorities, and expertise and with attention to the stated needs and concerns of the Edgehill neighborhood.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Sincerely,

The Edgehill Coalition Rose Park Committee
Joel Dark, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition
King Hollands, Organized Neighbors of Edgehill
Avy Long, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition
Cynthia Matthews, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition and Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership
Janet Shands, Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership
Joe Staler, Organized Neighbors of Edgehill
Ben Tran, Edgehill Village Neighborhood Association

___________________________

Concern 1:  Background of the MOU

The audit investigation requested by Dr. Battle and related News Channel 5 reports have confirmed that the proposed lease originated from the misuse of MNPS processes and MNPS officials in the service of a private interest.

Since September 2019, News Channel 5 has aired three investigative reports directly related to the proposed lease (on September 23, 2019; January 13, 2020; and February 11, 2020) and four indirectly related stories.

The January 13 story includes a portion of a letter dated November 21, 2018, from Belmont Vice President Jason Rogers to Dr. Tony Majors and Mr. David Proffitt indicating that Belmont’s use of MNPS rather than Parks property will avoid “a drawn out battle at the Metro Council” and asking that Dr. Majors and Mr. Proffitt join him in requesting that informed Metro officials keep their plans confidential.

Questions include:

  1. Who, if anyone, assigned or authorized Dr. Majors and Mr. Proffitt to represent MNPS in negotiating a potential lease of Rose Park Middle School property?  Did Dr. Majors and Mr. Proffitt make reports to MNPS regarding these negotiations?

  2. Who was responsible for misrepresenting the proposed lease (with no lease agreement or MOU) as an “easement” for “access to the school’s property” on the consent agenda of the November 27, 2018 meeting of MNPS Board of Education?

  3. Who authored the December 2018 MNPS-Belmont MOU supporting the proposed lease? Why was Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) identified as the primary beneficiary of the proposed “grant” or lease payments?

  4. How did Belmont obtain permission to begin construction of the property of Rose Park Middle School without a valid lease?

    The permit application – dated March 1, 2019 – seeks authorization for “Construction of 2 Story hitting/Clubhouse Facility for Metro Schools.” Who wrote and filed this application?

  5. Who revised the MOU in September 2019, and what changes were made?

    Why did the revised MOU continue to name RBI as the primary financial beneficiary of the proposed lease payments at this time – months after Dr. Battle had taken steps to address this concern?

    Why did the revised MOU continue to commit MNPS to the operation of an “Extended Learning Site,” for which it was known that funding was not available?

    Why did the revised MOU add a provision that no construction could begin without prior MNPS approval of construction plans — months after the beginning of construction and Belmont’s statement that the building was “currently under construction”? Are documents available showing construction plans or MNPS approval of these plans?

  6. Mr. Proffitt appeared before the Board of Zoning Appeals on October 3, 2019, to counter an appeal seeking to halt further construction.

    Mr. Proffitt incorrectly claimed at the hearing that he had been unaware of issues related to Rose Park when considering the proposed school lease. He also incorrectly stated that the MNPS Board had discussed and supported the proposal. The latter statement was central to the main issue of the hearing.

    In what capacity did Mr. Proffitt appear at this hearing, and in what capacity has he continued to represent MNPS in discussions of the proposed lease?

  7. What MNPS officials are assigned by Dr. Battle to consider the proposed school lease, negotiate terms, and make potential recommendations to the MNPS Board?

    Is it possible to develop a written framework – including values and desired outcomes – to inform the work of these individuals?

Concern 2: Educational Need for the Building

We request the MNPS Board of Education consider carefully whether the proposed athletics building meets a demonstrated educational need that justifies the extraordinary use of school property being sought by Belmont.

Belmont already has an indoor batting facility on Metro property at Fort Negley Park – within about one-half mile of Rose Park Middle School. The facility has been in operation since 2003 and is used by at least one MNPS baseball team.

Belmont does not compensate Metro for its use of this public property but does charge for MNPS use of the facility.

Questions include:

  1. What MNPS teams are using Belmont’s current indoor batting facility at Fort Negley Park? What level of MNPS demand does usage data for this facility demonstrate?

  2. What additional MNPS teams, if any, would use the indoor batting facility if it were relocated to Rose Park Middle School? If this is just Hume Fogg, how is the construction of the facility justified? If there are other teams, why are they not using the existing facility across the street?

  3. Is the relocation of Belmont’s indoor batting facility from Fort Negley Park to Rose Park Middle School necessary for additional MNPS teams to use it?

  4. Is the relocation of Belmont’s indoor batting facility a priority use for the property of Rose Park Middle School? How does the facility serve the main educational purpose and needs of Rose Park Middle School students?

Concern 3: Financial Terms and Duration of the Proposed Lease

A breakout group at the Rose Park community meeting in December was devoted to the proposed school lease’s duration and financial terms. The attached report includes a corresponding section with six recommendations specifically pertaining to MNPS..

Two of these — (1) the naming of MNPS rather than RBI or other private groups as the beneficiary of the lease payments and (2) the addition of an escalator for inflation — have been incorporated into the revised MOU.

The four unmet recommendations are:

  1. Duration of the Proposed Lease

    The 50-year duration of the proposed school lease, which extends approximately two decades beyond the limits of Belmont’s Rose Park lease, is unacceptable. The current MOU’s reference to a 30-year lease with two 10-year renewal periods is essentially the same as a 50-year lease.

  2. Lease Payment Amounts

    The recommendation of the report is that payment amounts in any proposed lease “must be based on transparent, rational criteria, including the appraised value of the property and the cost of any Metro school and park programming referenced in the lease.”

    The lease amount proposed in the current MOU is still less than the annual tuition of one Belmont student (not including room and board). This amount is not sufficient to support any programming sufficient to compensate MNPS for Belmont’s use of Rose Park Middle School property on this scale.

  3. Description of Lease Payments

    The report notes that the description of lease payments as a “grant” in the proposed lease is unacceptable and that “payments associated with any proposed lease of MNPS property must be accurately described as such.”

  4. Review Mechanism

    The report recommends that “any proposed school lease must include a requirement and mechanism for conducting fair-market-value assessments at specified times during the life of the contract.”

Concern 4: Building Use, Access, and Scheduling

A breakout group at the Rose Park community meeting in December was also devoted to the proposed lease’s provisions for the use and scheduling of the building. The attached report includes a corresponding section with seven recommendations, none of which are honored in the current version of the MOU.

Information that has come to light since the December community meeting makes these concerns even more acute.

First, the November 2018 document shared by News Channel 5 and referenced above shows that Belmont Vice President Jason Rogers sought to use MNPS property rather Parks property in part to avoid “having to open [the building] to the public with attendant cost and liability issues.” These liability issues for MNPS are not sufficiently addressed in the current MOU.

Second, the NCAA regulations invoked by Belmont to justify its collection of revenue from Hume Fogg for the use of its current batting facility at Fort Negley Park raise serious questions about the terms on which MNPS students would have access to the proposed building on the property of Rose Park Middle School.

The priority of Belmont’s NCAA standing over concern about the impropriety of charging Metro for the use of its own land is understandable from the perspective of Belmont, but Belmont’s NCAA standing should not drive Metro policy, require the investment of Metro assets (as is clearly the case on a much larger scale with Rose Park), or be used to limit the access of MNPS students to MNPS facilities. Any proposed school lease must directly address this problem, which is clearly already in evidence. Where NCAA principles and regulations limit contact between college coaches and high school students and require other boundaries between college and high school athletics, the proposed lease (if viable at all from the standpoint of NCAA equity principles) must prioritize the interests of MNPS students.

Other report recommendations with reference to building use and scheduling — not reflected in the current proposed MOU — include:

  1. Elimination of Any Proposed Belmont-only Second Floor

    Objections to this aspect of Belmont’s proposed project have been affirmed by Mayor Cooper in his previous role as an at-large Council member, by Council Member Allen, who characterized the second floor as “adding insult to injury,” and by other Council members. The proposed lease needs to include language expressly preventing this use of MNPS space.

  2. Nondiscrimination

    The approval of the use of an MNPS building for the offices of coaches hired under an open policy of religious discrimination would represent a nationally unprecedented action by a public school system. Belmont’s suggestion that this is similar to the renting of a school auditorium by a religious organization is disingenuous and unpersuasive. Even if the argument were plausible, it would still not be prudent or appropriate for MNPS to willingly enter into an agreement supporting religious discrimination on public school property.

  3. Metro Scheduling Authority

    The current proposed MOU assigns scheduling authority to Belmont for the duration of the lease. The argument that MNPS does not have resources to control the scheduling of the proposed building may be a reason to demand more equitable financial terms, but it is not a reason for MNPS to divest practical control over its own property for decades.

  4. Scheduling Priority for the Public

    The current MOU prioritizes Belmont use of the building over school and community access, the terms of which are very unclear. As indicated above, the priority of school and community use of the proposed building needs to be guaranteed in any proposed lease agreement.

Concern 5: Protection of Public Education Values

Over the past month, members of our Rose Park committee have followed growing concerns regarding Belmont’s extensive ties to the private prison industry and Belmont’s evasive response to criticism of these ties. Although much of this information is new to members of our committee, it is consistent with issues of paternalism and systemic racism that have been documented in the history of Belmont’s Rose Park lease, that Edgehill residents have experienced observed and experienced firsthand, and that should not be allowed to drive the terms of a lease with MNPS.

If the MNPS Board determines that the proposed lease merits favorable consideration in spite of these issues, we recommend the requirement of written assurance that Belmont will not fund the construction and maintenance of an MNPS building from its revenue sources linked to private prisons.

We further recommend that any lease agreement specifically state the public education values and goals served by the agreement and that the agreement include the oversight and accountability mechanisms recommended in Section 4 of the Rose Park committee report.

The guiding framework for the Rose Park community meeting in December and the resulting report — represented in the graphic below — was the possibility of a genuine partnership between Parks, MNPS, Belmont, and Edgehill neighborhood organizations. It is uncertain whether this oversight and accountability structure can protect the values and priorities of public parks, public education, and the Edgehill neighborhood, but it is clear that the structure is necessary for this to be seriously attempted.

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