Enough about hairdressing.
It shouldn’t matter if Rhonda Thurman — District 1 Board of Education member and hairdresser at Allure Beauty Salon — works in a pigpen. Intelligence is not exclusive to those with doctorate degrees, and common sense is as blue collar as it is white. Sometimes more so.
So the issue with the recent school board drama is not whether Thurman’s occupation disqualifies her to speak responsibly on education.
The issue is that those most qualified cannot.
The school board is like a playground seesaw. At one end sit the nine board members. Crowded together on the other end are the 42,000 students and 6,500 teachers and employees of the 78 Hamilton County public schools.
Yet on this crazy seesaw, the nine board members have the most leverage and weight, while the 48,500 are left dangling in the air.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Nine people — six in this case — had enough power to remove from office former superintendent Dr. Jim Scales at the cost of $300,000 at a time when budgets are as thin as sliced cafeteria bread.
Nine people have enough power to frighten at least two teachers I spoke with last week into silence. These veteran, award-winning teachers refused to be quoted in this column, saying they were too afraid Thurman or former school board member and current Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern would find ways to retaliate.
Nine people — needing only a few more days than are given for spring break — altered the job requirements for the single most important position in the school system: the superintendent. And in every alteration, they lowered the bar.
I hope Rick Smith is a shining knight and applaud him for a reduced salary and paying his own benefits, but the horse he rides in on is hobbled.
Nine board members seem to have more power than 48,500 students and teachers.
There are at least three ways to change this.
First, give the student representative who attends each board meeting the right to vote.
Nahomi Ortiz, who graduated from Red Bank High this spring, was elected last
year’s student representative. One of our city’s best and brightest, she attended every school board meeting, yet never was able to vote.
Hamilton County students might wish she had.
“They [board members] forget they are there for the well-being of students,” Ortiz said. “Board members aren’t there for next year’s voters or taxpayers. They are there for students. And that is the one thing they tend to leave out and forget.”
While Ortiz spoke highly of Thurman — calling her research and preparation “outstanding” — she was still stung over the yes-vote to buy out Scales’ contract.
“They constantly argued about the budget,” she said. “They didn’t want to do anything because they did not have enough money.
“And for them to find the means to buy out the superintendent’s contract? That money should be used for something better.”
Everett Fairchild and Thurman disagree with the idea of student representatives voting, while George Ricks and Linda Mosley like it. Joe Galloway was open to further discussion, and as of Friday, every other board member offered no comment.
“You need a high school education to sit on the school board. Why shouldn’t students have a vote?” said Kay Greever, social science teacher at Soddy-Daisy High and Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 2009.
“They read and listen to the news. They know what’s going on, and it affects them.”
Which brings us to the second point: Board members should substitute teach for one day in each school they represent.
Walk a mile in the shoes of the teachers you represent. It will send a practical and symbolic message that is deeply needed right now.
Finally, if we want to restore balance to the system, we must get involved. Quick quiz: What percentage of voters cast ballots in the last school board election? Forty percent?
“Probably wasn’t even 20 percent,” said Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, administrator for the Hamilton County Election Commission.
If we see our kids getting a bad deal, we must get involved. We must get our hands dirty. We must remember: Power concedes nothing without demand.
Frederick Douglass once said that.
He was a former slave.
David Cook can be reached at email@example.com.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...