I haven’t written much lately about the state of Hamilton County schools. About a year ago, it seems like that was all I was writing about. The Ooltewah High basketball team rape case was dominating the news, followed shortly by the fall of Superintendent Rick Smith.
The perfect storm was just beginning. A few weeks later, parents were threatening to prevent their children from taking state-mandated achievement tests. Sure enough, they had a point. The online testing, scheduled to last several days, blew up the servers within minutes. This led to a long, drawn-out fiasco of missed deadlines and epic fails that postponed the whole affair. Some called for a return to the old pencil-and-paper era, but the state couldn’t even get that right.
By spring, a superintendent search had begun (and is still far from over). Local columnists and people of influence, some reputable and others not-so-much, said interim Supt. Dr. Kirk Kelly was the wrong man for the job. “We need new blood!” they screamed. Kelly, a solid school guy in my opinion, almost got the permanent job, and then his nomination was pulled. Various others put their hats in the ring, but Kelly prevailed. He is still in the running, but until an out-of-town search firm uses up all their taxpayer-funded spending money, the School Board engine is still in neutral.
In late summer, the voters spoke. They kicked out three of the four Board members on the ballot (only Rhonda Thurman survived). In early November, a fourth Board member, Greg Martin, was selected for a County Commission vacancy. In yet another bizarre twist, Martin’s new colleagues on the Commission ignored his recommendation for a replacement and chose his most recent political opponent Joe Smith to take his place. So by the end of the year, almost half of the School Board was brand spankin’ new.
Then came rumblings that Signal Mountain, home of some of the county’s best and brightest, wanted out. Even though their schools are high performers, some mountain residents feel they could do a better job without the restrictions and distractions of being associated with Hamilton County. “If they get out, we want out too,” shouted a few other municipalities, some of which can’t even afford to stripe their main roads. At this writing, committees have been assembled to figure out how to pay for the infrastructure of a new school system by towns that often plead poverty when pressed for basic necessities.
Anyway, back to this new School Board. With their plates full and their cups running over, the worst thing that could happen happened. On November 21st, a school bus driven by Durham employee Jonthony Walker went off its route, and off the road, killing six children from Woodmore Elementary and injuring several others. This horrible tragedy ignited a long-overdue debate about bus driver qualifications, bus safety, and accepting the low bid during negotiations involving the well-being of children.
So to review: a School Board whose year began in scandal, then erupted into a noisy leadership change, endured state testing incompetence, mass rejection by the electorate, and threats of secession, ended with an unthinkable tragedy. It’s hard to find another school district that had a year like Hamilton County in 2016. (Remarkably, I still see teachers and students functioning quite well, all over the county. They close their doors, and do their jobs. Kudos.)
I’m finally writing about the schools again now because they are no longer in a holding pattern, and new Board members are no longer on their honeymoon. They’re facing another avalanche of big decisions soon, and (news flash!) not everyone will be happy.
Soon, they’ll get around to choosing a “permanent” superintendent. I’m enclosing that word in quotation marks, because ever since the days of former Hamilton County Supt. Don Loftis, who served seventeen years, the job has not been long-term.
After the city of Chattanooga bailed out of the school business in the mid-1990s, Dr. Jesse Register was recruited from a little town in North Carolina to lead the newly “unified” city and county schools. I’ve enclosed that word in quotation marks too, because truth be told, the two school systems were anything but unified in those early days, and the struggle continues today. To his credit, Register pushed for, and got much needed improvements and replacements for some of the old city schools (East Lake, Hardy, Orchard Knob, East Side and many others) in gross disrepair. Many county residents believed he did so at the expense of their neighborhood schools, and Register never won them over. On top of that, he was a poor politician (a necessary skill when dealing with County Commissioners who control the cash), and a subpar communicator. He managed to survive eight stormy years. (He later got mostly high marks for his tenure as superintendent of Metro Nashville schools).
His successor, Dr. Jim Scales of Texas, fared no better. His political and communication skills were also below average, and he left after five years with little to show for it.
When Rick Smith replaced Scales in 2011, some in the county rejoiced. “We finally got a local guy!” they said. They believed Smith could charm the County Commissioners, and wouldn’t have to ask directions to find Snow Hill or Lookout Valley. To everyone’s surprise, Smith, believed to be a fairly decent politico and communicator, was also unable to loosen the Commissioner’s purse strings. Then in the wake of the Ooltewah scandal, Smith ignored the advice of friends, Board members, and in the interest of full disclosure, myself too, and mysteriously disappeared for days on end while the public demanded answers on the rape of a freshman athlete.
When State Sen. Todd Gardenhire leaked some damning academic information to a local media outlet, Board members were outraged. “Why didn’t we know this?” It turns out Smith had it on his desk for a few days, but had chosen not to share it with the nine people who controlled his destiny. Thus ended the reign of Rick Smith, making him the third straight Hamilton County superintendent to leave, shall we say, on less than good terms. It’s never a positive sign when three straight bosses have been sent packing without a farewell party, a big cake, and some parting gifts. (This does not count unused vacation pay, sick leave, and huge contract buyouts.)
Now here we are. A year after Ooltewah and Smith, and still reeling from the election, the secession threats, and the school bus tragedy. Don't forget about the ongoing warnings that the state might take over five of the county's lowest-performing schools.
Oh wait, there’s more. At a recent series of meetings that stretched into a January weekend, the subject of facilities came up. The list is still being updated and compiled, but there are dozens of projects, large and small, said to be of great need. Tennis courts, football facilities (fields, bleachers, and field houses), basketball gyms, fine arts centers (like the one promised to Central High in 1968…that’s not a typo), and tracks.
Roofs that need to be replaced, heating and air units on their last legs, and ridiculously undersized band rooms (hello again, Central).
Those are the dollar store items they can’t afford. Now throw in a new elementary school for Harrison ("The current one is dangerous!" is said frequently by Board members and parents) , a new middle school for East Hamilton, the new building recommended for CSLA in 1999, incredible growth in the Ooltewah area, issues at Spring Creek, Snow Hill, and more, and we’re running up a tab in the neighborhood of over $100 million.
In order to make even a fraction of this happen, these Board members have to charm and court their County Commissioners. If this seems like déjà vu, it’s because I’ve been reporting this same story since 1997. I vividly remember Dr. Register telling Board members in his thick drawl, “You’ll have to tell them. They won’t listen to me.”
They do however, listen to voters. Voters who tell them every four years, “If you raise my taxes, you won’t get my vote.” It’s hard to remember a County Commissioner who ever ran a winning campaign on the platform of, “Vote for me, and I’ll raise your property taxes!”
So here I am, writing about schools, as I have for twenty-something years. When I started doing so, I visited the downtown library to get some historical perspective. I read the papers from 1965, 1975, and so on. The headlines were the same as they are today. Schools are underfunded, teachers are underpaid, we need to do a better job selecting principals, we need to take care of our buildings, and we need to improve our athletic facilities. The stories are the same. Only the names and faces have changed.
I've reported on at least forty different city and county School Board members since the 90s, of varying quality. Some have been excellent. I also remember a few who honestly didn't know what they were voting for at times.
I’ll say this for the new School Board members (and their veteran counterparts). They’re serious about this. In a three day period in mid-January, they sat, and met, and debated, and argued, and asked questions. Four hours one night, four more the next, and five more the next day, a Saturday.
There was no cutting up, no goofing off, and the rookies asked good, tough questions. One of them, clearly overwhelmed, pulled me aside and said, “It’s like drinking water from a fire hydrant.”
That’s where we are in early 2017. No permanent leadership, a shaky relationship with the County Commission, a changing bus transportation system on the hot seat, some of the school district’s top schools threatening to leave, and some of the most talented teachers and administrators literally counting down the days until they can retire. And oh yes, the likely new U.S. Secretary of Education who rightly or wrongly, scares the heck out of most public school educators.
Now: Who all wants to apply for that superintendent’s job?