Hamilton County Commissioners, School Board members "making an effort" to communicate
The mood was upbeat as Hamilton County Commissioners and School Board members, frequent foes in recent years, enjoyed dinner with their spouses at TechTown Chattanooga Monday night. TechTown is described as a "technology and entrepreneurial learning center offering year-round after-school programs and summer camps" The joint meeting was organized by District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, newly appointed chair of the Commission's Education Committee.
All nine School Board members attended the meeting, along with eight County Commissioners. Only District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd was absent. County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Superintendent Rick Smith were also present.
In addition to a tour of TechTown, which provided the meal, the elected officials were asked to provide ideas on how the two government bodies could better communicate and work together.
Most of those who chose to speak put aside differences of the past, which have often included heated debates over school district money and the proposed tax hikes that provide funding. School Board members have often complained that they understand the needs and priorities better than Commissioners, who hold the purse strings. Most Commissioners were elected to office after promising voters they would not support any tax increase.
Although no promises were made, and certainly no one announced any change in their position, several Commissioners spoke in positive terms about the School District and its leadership. "I think Superintendent Smith is on the right track," said Warren Mackey of District 4. "We need to have more meetings like this," District 6 representative Joe Graham said. "Anytime we make the effort, it's good."
School Board member George Ricks, who represents District 4, attracted smiles and laughter by advocating "more love." He said, "I love everyone here, there's no reason why we can't work together for the right thing." District 9 representative Steve Highlander praised the good work of high school students he had recently met. "We have young people with great ideas, and we need to support them."
The elected officials did not spice up their positive messages with tax talk, but one audience member did. Jennifer Woods, a retired teacher and longtime NAACP and Hamilton County Education leader stepped up to the microphone announcing she was going to talk about "the elephant in the room." She cited several instances of schools failing to meet the needs of troubled students during her teaching career, and challenged Commissioners to raise property taxes to help schools. "This would hurt me as much as anyone, I'm a property owner. But you all need to talk the talk, and put your money where your mouth is."
Commissioner Greg Beck of District 5 said the community's biggest problem is crime. The longtime court officer said he sees troubled young people every day, "and their lives are worth saving. They are the future."
Smedley says she hopes the meeting will kick off a new era of better communication between the Commissioners and Board members. Several of the elected officials said such meetings need to take place on a regular basis.