Two members of the Hamilton County School Board say they reject the idea that county schools need to “racially and economically integrate,” which they say is the premise of a policy platform from UnifiEd, a 4-year old organization created to support the area's public education.

“People believe Unifi-Ed’s purpose is to work in concert with many others to better public education in Hamilton County,” said Joe Smith, school board member from District 3. “That changed last fall when they announced the APEX project and formed a political action committee. I didn’t realize what it meant then, but I do today.”

“I simply do not believe what Unifi-Ed believes,” said Rhonda Thurman, school board member from District 1. “I don’t think there are many people in Hamilton County who will agree with what they are proposing.”

Unifi-Ed (UE) released its 55-page APEX Project platform in April. It is the result of a six-month process the group says included various community viewpoints. The School Board members say the platform states the school system “must create a plan, together with the community, to racially and socioeconomically desegregate our schools.” The strategies to “integrate” schools would include a “robust transportation policy.”

“They call for using busing to promote integration,” said Thurman. “UnifiEd may think that busing is a new and innovative idea but, the truth is that busing was tried in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s. It did not work then and it will not work now, I don’t care what the research says.”

A spokesperson for the Board members says UnifiEd created a political action committee late last year, and the PAC actively worked for the slate of candidates it endorsed in the recent May 1 county primaries. The spokesperson says the PAC is scheduling interviews with school board members this month regarding potential endorsements. UnifiEd is currently co-hosting a series of debates with Chattanooga 2.0 for the five contested school board elections, scheduled for the county August general election. 

Smith, who will debate his opponent Miracle Hurley on May 21 at Hixson High School, said the candidates have received the first five questions that will be asked, and the second question asks what specific plans they would have to “fully integrate our public schools to ensure equity for all of our young people.”

“I read every word of the report after we received it in April, and I have talked with the education leaders in my district about this policy,” said Smith, “I can’t support what it says. I am not sure how Unifi-Ed can say this represents Hamilton County because I know it doesn’t represent what the people of District 3 believe.

“Hamilton County is a conservative place, and UnifiEd has shown itself to be way far to the left on what they believe,” said Smith.

Both Thurman and Smith say the report contradicts itself by calling for support for the community school concept being strongly embraced by the Board and Dr. Johnson while at the same time calling for a 2018 version of school integration. Both said they support the work Dr. Johnson is directing regarding community schools and the 2018-19 budget includes support for community schools.

The spokesperson says the report calls for using zoning, “controlled” school choice models, increased magnet school access and improved transfer policies as ways to integrate schools. Both Thurman and Smith endorse open enrollment, but say the significant increase in transportation cost is prohibitive. Hamilton County schools instituted a magnet plan to increase diversity in the early 2000s, and the Future Ready Institutes being implemented by the school system hope to create 17 new, 400-student magnet schools in four years.

“UnifiEd hasn’t considered the cost of doing anything,” said Thurman. “This is my county, I don’t need liberals from out of town coming here telling me what’s best for people in Hamilton County and ordering me to tell the County Commission to take more money from taxpayers.”

Here is the UnifiED response: 

"Today, Hamilton County school board members Joe Smith and Rhonda Thurman issued a press release rejecting the community’s calls to integrate public schools and break up concentrations of poverty in student bodies. This is contrary to the wants and needs of the Hamilton County community as discovered through the APEX Project and in direct opposition to best practice research on what is required to create an equitable public school system for our children.

Joe Smith stated that the calls set forth in the APEX Project policy report do not represent what the people of District 3 (or Hamilton County) believe. To the contrary, states Natalie Cook, Interim Executive Director of UnifiEd. "The APEX Project sought as much community input as our staff and team of volunteers could assemble over the course of six months, and the thousands of responses we received represented every corner of this county, including the districts Mr. Smith and Ms. Thurman represent,” she says. “Breaking up concentrated poverty in our schools was identified as a top issue in the community engagement process that engaged more than 4,000 people across Hamilton County."

These school board members’ stance and rhetoric is especially concerning given the long history of segregation in Hamilton County schools. Edna Varner, retired educator and UnifiEd Board Chair remarks, "I grew up in segregated schools in Hamilton County and was an educator in them for decades. I also taught in a magnet school where I saw the power of a diverse student body. Just because a few kids coming from segregated schools 'make it,' some think segregation can work. Too few make it, though, and it's an unbelievable struggle for those who do. That is not a fair burden to put on our children. Today, only 3% of our students graduating from schools with high concentrations of poverty graduate ready for college or career. Segregated schools rob children of their potential and hurt our entire community."

Thurman claims that breaking up concentrated poverty in our schools is the desire of liberals. Yet, Steve Slater, a community leader in Soddy-Daisy and APEX Project Steering Committee member representing district 1, says, "I'm as conservative as they come. As part of the APEX Project process, politics wasn't brought up once in our meetings, it was all about education. We all met with one goal in mind: to ensure all of our students have access to great public schools,”
he says. “Providing our kids with an excellent education should be at the forefront of all of our minds, regardless of your political affiliation as a conservative or liberal. It's going to take all of us working together across political lines to do what's best for our kids."

UnifiEd Interim Executive Director Natalie Cook adds, "Desegregating schools is not a liberal or conservative issue. Providing an excellent education to every child in this county - regardless of zip code or district - is a responsibility we all share, and especially members of the school board."

UnifiEd is a community-led movement of parents, teachers, and citizens who want every student in Hamilton County to have the chance to attend great public schools. The organization works to educate the community about how to help teachers and students, offers training and tools to advocate for them, and encourages a unified voice around public education to create real and lasting change. (Statement from Natalie Cook, Interim Executive Director)