The Martha O'Bryan Center is known throughout Nashville for its work with low-income residents and has been embedded in East Nashville's James Cayce homes for decades. As Cayce is being overhauled into mixed-income housing, the nonprofit is about to move one of its charter schools into that complex. But the new school building has received pushback from some city officials.
They've criticized the $28 million financing deal that Martha O'Bryan made with the Metropolitan Housing and Development Agency. And they've asked why the nonprofit's school, called Explore, is moving into Cayce in the first place.
WPLN's Meribah Knight and the Tennessean's Nate Rau co-reported a story this week digging into the details. Listen to an interview with Meribah and Nate, or read excerpts from the interview below.
Nashville's public housing authority is financing the new charter school building inside Cayce. So why is this partnership with the Martha O'Bryan Center being questioned?
MK: The housing authority, or MDHA, picked Martha O'Bryan as its partner for the charter school without a formal bidding process, even though East Nashville has several charter school operators. The bottom line is that the housing chief, Jim Harbison, has called this school deal the "glue" of this new development. He says that the key to breaking up concentrated poverty is high-quality educational options. And so fast-forward to today, and MDHA is taking on an unprecedented level of risk by building a $28 million school for the Martha O'Bryan Center, a deal with not much financial vetting of the organization itself.
What did you find when you dug into the Martha O'Bryan Center's financial filings?
NR: Well, the public tax documents that are available show that the organization has been operating in the red the last two years, so that's led to some major cuts. ... They cut the kitchen program that served as a job training program to ex-offenders. They also cut their early learning center which served as a pre-K and daycare. But despite these shaky finances, the Martha O'Bryan Center landed this major school deal at a time when other schools are clawing for resources and struggling to find buildings.
What did you see that might cast doubt on the center's ability to pay off the debt for this school?
NR: Alarm bells are already being rung here. The construction project is barely underway, and already the MDHA had to [grant] an 11-month extension for Martha O'Bryan to make the first of its three payments, totaling $5 million. ... Martha O'Bryan Center's leadership said that this extension aligns the project with the construction schedule, which is more typical for how they would fundraise. But there are skeptics including on the MDHA board who were worried about needing this extension.
MK: Specifically, Melvin Black, who is an MDHA board member, has been against this plan from the beginning. He said, "We're in the business of building housing. We're not in the business of building schools. Why open ourselves up to this risk?"
There are already two elementary schools in the area, Warner and KIPP Kirkpatrick. What's the community saying about having another elementary school?
MK: You know, some residents you speak with say this is exactly the right thing for the neighborhood. They want more educational options. But many more are skeptical at exactly what it means to have two charter schools just yards away from each other — two schools that are already feeling like they reflect the divisions in this neighborhood. KIPP Kirkpatrick is a struggling school. It's in an old building, boarded-up windows, mostly minority student body. Meanwhile, Explore is only 39 percent economically disadvantaged. So residents kind of see this as an example of those divisions in the neighborhood, and they worry that those numbers could become even more polarized as the complex shifts to mixed-income.
At-large Councilman John Cooper echoes these concerns. He told us ... building a brand-new school next to a decrepit old one sends a very distinct message which, in his words, was, "Is it just an amenity for gentrification?"