Letter to the MNPS Board of Education, Dr. Adrienne Battle, Mr. Ashford Hughes, and Ms. Melissa Roberge

Dear MNPS Board of Education members, Dr. Battle, Mr. Hughes, and Ms. Roberge,

Thank you again for allowing time for discussion of the proposed Belmont lease last week. We are grateful to Ms. Buggs and Ms. Pupo-Walker for their recognition of neighborhood concerns in the meeting, to Dr. Gentry for her recommendation of an equity review by Mr. Hughes, and to all MNPS Board and staff members for facilitating and participating in an open and thoughtful discussion.

Members of our Rose Park committee followed the Board’s discussion carefully and appreciated the attention to questions we had raised as well as other important considerations.

We recognized at least five areas where we have and can share information:

  1. Dr, Nabaa-McKinney’s question regarding potential discrimination in an MNPS facility.

    Our understanding from basic floor plans presented in community meetings is that the proposed lease involves Christian-only office space in a public school building — i.e., office space reserved for coaches employed through a discriminatory hiring process and working within a religious institutional mission.

    This and other aspects of the proposed agreement constitute an impermissible entanglement of MNPS with a private religious institution. Relevant information — regarding religious discrimination at Belmont and Metro’s prior experience with related issues through its Rose Park lease — are presented more extensively below.

  2. Questions presented by Ms. Elrod and Ms. Frogge regarding the shared use of the proposed building’s second floor.

    Our most recent understanding is that the proposed building’s second floor space is intended for primary or exclusive use by Belmont. A basic second-floor plan was presented at a 2018 community meeting, with potential areas for shared use (including stairs and an elevator) highlighted.

    SecondFloorBelmontBldg (1)

    A second-floor conference room was referenced in the Board meeting and is depicted in the diagram. It is our understanding that this space may be shared but is very small. We are unaware of any changes to these plans. General MNPS use of the second floor is certainly not provided for in the proposed lease.

    We have advocated for public access to the second floor for years as a way of achieving the potential of a community center in our neighborhood eloquently expressed by Ms. Bush.

  3. The observations of Ms. Pupo-Walker and Ms. Speering about the information provided on the consent agenda for the MNPS Board meeting on November 27, 2018.

    The meeting on August 11, 2020, was the first MNPS Board meeting at which any version of the proposed lease was discussed.

    The item on the consent agenda of MNPS Board meeting on November 27, 2018, was a request for an easement for construction access. News Channel 5 has shared an email from Belmont Vice President Jason Rogers to Dr. Majors and Mr. Proffitt, written six days before the MNPS Board meeting, asking that informed Metro officials keep the proposed lease confidential.

  4. Dr. Gentry’s question about the use of the terms “grant” and “lease,” and the follow-up question of Ms. Player-Peters about whether this language was inherited from an earlier Parks version of the proposal.

    Confused “grant” and “lease” language is a part of Belmont’s 2007 Rose Park lease.

    Dr. Gentry may be correct that the term “grant” allows for designated use of lease payments. The experience of the Edgehill neighborhood with the connotations of the term “grant,” however, have been negative. Having spoken of a “partnership” in seeking a lease of Rose Park, Belmont argued successfully in state court against the Organized Neighbors of Edgehill (ONE) that its use of the park was not a partnership but instead a straightforward lease.

    With reference both to the park lease and the proposed school lease, we have favored “lease” as a simpler and less paternalistic term — recognizing Belmont’s private use of public assets and potentially helping to achieve fairer financial terms. As we shared previously, the annual payment in the proposed lease is less than the tuition of one Belmont student (not including room and board).

  5. Ms. Frogge’s question about the relationship of the proposed school lease to Belmont’s 2007 Rose Park lease and the information shared by Mr. North about Belmont’s use of the park.

    The proposed school lease is an extension and expansion of Belmont’s Rose Park lease.

    Belmont’s 40-year park lease has conditions — such as limits on the construction of seating (750 for the baseball field, 300 for the track and soccer field, and 250 for the softball field) — designed to ensure that Rose Park continues to look at least somewhat like a park.

    The construction of a 20,000+ square-foot athletics and office building was at least implicitly outside these restrictions. Belmont nevertheless initially planned to locate the building (presented as a “batting cage”) in the park. The plan to use MNPS property and efforts to keep this confidential were a response to efforts to prevent Belmont from building directly in the park.

We are continuing to share information on the Rose Park page of the Edgehill Coalition website, which contains our main committee report as well as our letter to Dr. Battle and the MNPS Board last week.

In addition to this material, we hope to be able to organize and share any additional information that would be helpful prior to the August 25 MNPS Board meeting.

We have begun with the information provided below with reference to Dr. Nabaa McKinney’s question about potential discrimination in an MNPS facility.

Thank you for the opportunity to share information and concerns, and please feel free to contact us at any time, individually or as a group, if there ways that we can address these or other questions more effectively.

Sincerely,

The Edgehill Coalition Rose Park Committee

Avy Long, Rose Park Committee Chair, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition
Joel Dark, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition
King Hollands, Board Member, Organized Neighbors of Edgehill
Cynthia Matthews, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition; Board Member, Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership
Janet Shands, Board Member, Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership
Joe Staler, Board Member, Organized Neighbors of Edgehill; Board Member Waverly-Belmont Bulldogs; Edgehill Cardinals
Ben Tran, Board Member, Edgehill Village Neighborhood Association

Belmont and Religious Discrimination

Overview

Rose Park and Rose Park Middle School are public property belonging to the taxpayers of Metro Nashville and intended to serve a diverse neighborhood and city.

The leasing of an operational public-school building to a private religious institution for a period of 30 to 50 years is nationally unprecedented and profoundly problematic. This would be the case even if the school building were not in active use by students, but the proposed Rose Park Middle School lease involves a private religious institution’s operation of a facility in active and routine use by MNPS students.

Religious Discrimination at Belmont University

Belmont University’s website openly asserts Belmont’s right to “discriminate on the basis of religion in order to fulfill its purposes.”

Christian religious affiliation is a criterion for employment at Belmont, whose online employment application requires that applicants respond to a “yes-no” question with reference to this criterion:

Belmont Religion Question

This question does not recognize or seek information concerning an applicant’s adherence to any other religion or system of belief.

A second question assumes that the applicant is a Christian:

Belmont Religion Question 2

Belmont employment applications include one or both of these questions. The second example above is from an application for a pooled set of office administrative positions.

Belmont’s faculty handbook requires “active involvement in a local church committed to the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord” as a condition for tenure.

Belmont’s employee handbook requires all employees to “uphold Jesus as the Christ and as the measure for all things.”

Considerations

With reference to religious discrimination, it is important that decisions of the Board of Education regarding the proposed lease are informed by public education values, relevant law, considerations of precedent, and an awareness of Metro Nashville’s history with issues of discrimination related to Rose Park.

Public Education Values

The current terms of the proposed lease — in providing for the operation of an MNPS facility by a private, Christian, religiously exclusive institution — are disrespectful to the diversity values and commitments of public education.

They are also disrespectful to MNPS students from a variety of faith and non-faith backgrounds and to the diverse citizens and taxpayers of Metro Nashville who fund and otherwise support MNPS.

Many of these individuals make enormous contributions to the success of our public schools but are expressly excluded on the basis of religion from working at Belmont. Some have direct experience of Belmont’s discriminatory policies.

Law

In response to Dr. Nabaa-McKinney;s question about the issue of discrimination at the MNPS Board meeting on August 11, Metro Attorney Melissa Roberge replied that MNPS could not control Belmont’s internal practices but would ensure that the building was “used in a constitutional manner.”

Dr. Nabaa-McKinney asked if this was stated in the proposed lease, and Ms. Roberge replied that it is not.

It is critical for Metro attorneys to review case law directly relevant to the proposed lease and to advise the MNPS Board regarding the significant potential for legal challenges if it is approved.

A federal court in Missouri, for example, found in 2017 that two school field trips to a recreational facility operated by a private religious institution (Victory Ministries and Sport Complex) represented an impermissible entanglement of the school district with this institution:

“Entangling school district operations, curriculum, activities or opportunities with those of a religious organization or religious belief set is not permitted. Certainly, occasional use of a facility owned by a religious entity for a school function may be permissible without being considered impermissible entanglement. Here, however, the frequency, consistency, and extent [emphasis added] of the relationship between the Joplin District and Victory goes well beyond occasional or incidental use and impermissibly entangles the Joplin District with religion.”

The federal court ordered the district to pay approximately $150,000 in related legal fees.

The proposed 30-to-50-year operation of an MNPS building by a private religious organization — including Christian-only office space — involves a relationship between MNPS and Belmont of far greater “frequency, consistency, and extent” than the relationship found to be impermissible in the Joplin School District case.

The success of a potential legal challenge on this basis or other case law is likely, and related financial costs are almost certain. These potential costs include not only legal expenses but, more significantly, the future of the invested real property if the terms of the MNPS-Belmont relationship are found to be impermissible.

Precedents for MNPS

In a contribution to the discussion at the MNPS Board meeting on August 11, Dr. Gentry observed correctly that the proposed lease was in some respects similar to leases of other MNPS property, including leases for the operation of charter schools.

To date, school property leases for the operation of charter schools, in Nashville and elsewhere, do not involve leases to private religious organizations.

The current terms of the proposed lease risk creating a precedent for this and for the operation of other MNPS facilities by private institutions that discriminate on the basis of religion.

Discrimination and the History of the Rose Park Lease

Belmont and its Rose Park lease played a critical role in the events that led to state legislation — the “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce” act — nullifying a Metro Nashville non-discrimination ordinance with reference to sexual orientation and gender identity.

In 2010, the dismissal or resignation of Belmont soccer coach Lisa Howe led members of the Metro Council to file BL2010-823 seeking the repeal of the ordinance enacting Belmont’s Rose Park lease. Belmont immediately amended its by-laws to include non-discrimination provisions. Although President Bob Fisher stated at the time that he would put the employment of LGBT individuals “in the category of a hypothetical,” the policy change was sufficient for the withdrawal of the bill and its replacement with a broader ordinance anti-discrimination ordinance applying to all Metro contracts. Belmont board member Lee Beaman and others responded by successfully seeking state legislation to preempt this second Metro ordinance. Ms. Howe, along with a faculty sponsor of the Gay/Straight Alliance at Hume-Fogg and others, unsuccessfully challenged this statute in Lisa Howe et al. v. Haslam.

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Bostock v. Clayton County has made the Tennessee statute unenforceable, and Ms. Howe’s story has again received national attention in the context of this historic decision. The Tennessee statute nevertheless limited Metro Nashville’s efforts to become a more equitable and inclusive city for almost a decade. This history demonstrates the larger risks for Metro Nashville in a public-private relationship where the mission, values, and policies of the private institution are not carefully examined prior to the approval of an agreement.