published Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Tennessee lawmakers and Hamilton County commissioners tell parents to take concerns elsewhere

D.R. Fraley, center, speaks to Deborah Hyde, right, as other concerned parents listen in at the end of a Hamilton County Commission meeting. Fraley and others are concerned about how the Hamilton County school system allegedly mistreats special needs children.
D.R. Fraley, center, speaks to Deborah Hyde, right, as other concerned parents listen in at the end of a Hamilton County Commission meeting. Fraley and others are concerned about how the Hamilton County school system allegedly mistreats special needs children.
Photo by Dan Henry.
  • photo
    Appearances before Hamilton County Board of Education

Two arms of government offered little more than a sympathetic ear Wednesday to parents outraged over Hamilton County's special education programs.

State lawmakers and Hamilton County commissioners instead urged parents to take their concerns to school administrators or the Board of Education.

Public forums are the wrong venue to discuss individual concerns about a child's education, schools Superintendent Rick Smith said after parents brought their issues to two meetings.

"The best way to solve a problem is at the school level," Smith said. "They have a principal; we have school directors; we have a special education department. The county commission is not the place to solve this problem."

For several weeks, some parents have brought their individual concerns over the county's special education program before the commission, saying they got nowhere with school and central office staffers. Parents have come forward since D.R. Fraley first stepped up to the commission's podium a month ago looking for help.

He said the group is considering what to do next and may contact officials at the Tennessee Department of Education.

"This is not just one class, one issue," Fraley said. "It started as that. But it's much bigger than that."

School district administrators say they take all complaints seriously and that children in special education programs are receiving the appropriate care and education to meet their individual needs.

But parents have lodged various complaints in recent weeks. Some have said they're unable to get their kids into the necessary programs or classes, that the school system has given up on their children or that they feel their kids are unsafe at school.

About 8,500 of the school system's 42,000 students receive special education programming. That figure includes students in gifted programs.

After their fourth straight week at a commission meeting, a handful of parents voiced their concerns again on Wednesday morning to members of the local legislative delegation gathered for the Hamilton County Council of PTA's annual legislative forum.

But General Assembly members said there was little they could do to address their problems.

"I've heard what you said and the delegation communicates regularly with all of our local governments," said state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga. "At the end of the day, those are local administrators that should respond to local constituents. It's really a local administrative issue."

With a special-needs grandson of his own, state Sen.-elect Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he will offer help if he can.

"The short answer is: I don't know," he said.

Parents heard a similar message at Wednesday's Hamilton County Commission meeting.

"We are the funding body for the school system," said commission Chairman Larry Henry. "Apart from that, we have no direction on school policy, school personnel."

The chairman said he spoke with school board members and the superintendent, and believes they are receptive to hearing from the parents.

"I feel very confident that they would allow all you to come on their agenda and hear this case," he said. "That's why we have the school board -- to take care of school board policy."

But it's unclear whether the board will hear the parents. Commissioners passed out copies of the school board's policy for securing a place on a meeting agenda. That policy calls for individuals to make a written request at least three days before a meeting. Then the executive committee, comprised of the superintendent and the board chairman, decide whether to add the item to the agenda.

Chairman Mike Evatt said the board won't publicly discuss personnel issues. And Fraley's original complaint centered on a special education teacher who was suddenly removed from the classroom.

The superintendent says he wants to look into specific claims and deal with concerns individually. He'll now have more information to work from, as Fraley handed him a pile of letters from parents of special-needs students as the two met outside of Orchard Knob Elementary School.

School board member Jeffrey Wilson said the group of parents clearly needs a voice. But the school board's public meetings may not be the best place for that.

"I'm hoping there's a middle ground where the administration will get involved and help these parents," he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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