By Kelli Gauthier
The Hamilton County Board of Education voted 7-2 Thursday night to approve hiring five new staff members at Howard School of Academics and Technology to cut down on what has become a significant attendance problem.
The positions are a truancy officer, two social workers, a special education teacher and an office clerk, which will cost the school system $317,850 annually.
Hamilton County recently proposed the new hires to the state Department of Education as an alternative to the mandate of starting classes at 8:15 a.m. instead of the current 7:15 a.m.
"We didn't think that was the most effective way to reach the needs of students," said school system Superintendent Jim Scales. "At Howard, we'd rather have more staff."
Changing the start time in January as originally directed by the state, would have cost the district $425,000 and required the creation of 17 new bus routes.
In a letter to Hamilton County Schools, Connie Smith, executive director of assessment and accountability for the Tennessee Department of Education, said that the district will be required to start classes at Howard an hour later beginning in the 2008-09 school year.
School board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Conner, who voted against the new hires, said they were concerned over what they considered a lack of communication among the school district, the state department and the Hamilton County Board of Education.
"Next time, we should not keep the board so much in the dark," Mrs. Thurman said. "I can't vote for this with all these questions unanswered. There has been no communication with this board."
Mr. Conner added an amendment to the motion that was passed to keep the school board informed of any communication between the state and the district.
"The board needs to receive that same information since we're under the microscope," he said.
Area II Superintendent Elaine Swafford, former Howard principal, said since a state-employed exemplary educator is on staff at Howard because of its high-priority status, reports on the school were sent to the state Department of Education without district notification.
"We were just as surprised as many of you were," she said.
Mrs. Thurman and board member Chip Baker said they thought if so much money was being spent on staff at Howard, it should be on teachers, and not social workers.
"We can hire all the people we want to hire, and we still can't drag these kids out of bed in the morning," Mrs. Thurman said.
School board member Debra Matthews, who represents Howard's district, told fellow board members to remember that this vote was not a "cure-all" for Howard's attendance problems and low graduation rate but was a first step toward solving the school's problems.
The board did not vote whether to approve renovations to Howard Middle, also required in the compromise between the state and the district. Hamilton County Schools' Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz called the omission an oversight.
He said Dr. Scales planned to call a special meeting next week, and the Howard renovations most likely would be discussed then.
E-mail Kelli Gauthier at email@example.com