published Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Hamilton County parents protest rezoning proposal at school offices

Madison Butler, left, and Abby Nunley hold up signs decrying plans to rezone the eastern districts of Hamilton County Schools outside of the Hamilton County Board of Education building Tuesday afternoon.  A group of parents and students entered the building to request documents about the rezoning from Superintendent Rick Smith, who was unavailable.
Madison Butler, left, and Abby Nunley hold up signs decrying plans to rezone the eastern districts of Hamilton County Schools outside of the Hamilton County Board of Education building Tuesday afternoon. A group of parents and students entered the building to request documents about the rezoning from Superintendent Rick Smith, who was unavailable.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

THE STORY SO FAR

Hamilton County Schools administrators have created a rezoning plan for schools on the east side of the county. Plans call for moving several hundred students from East Hamilton Middle/High School to Hunter Middle, Ooltewah Middle and Ooltewah High. About 10 elementary schools are also proposed to be rezoned as the system tries to alleviate overcrowding and prepares to build two new area elementary schools.


WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

Parents working against the rezoning proposal are organizing online through the Facebook group, "Citizens Against East Hamilton/Ooltewah Rezoning." At least link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/373350002689294/

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

Slogans from signs carried by parents and students on Tuesday included:

Do you hear us now Rick?

You are punishing me.

We aren't a number. We have a voice.

Board members speak up. Vote no.

Rezoning is not fair.

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A crowd of angry parents came looking for Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith to provide documents and answers -- anything that could tell them why their children may have to be forced to change schools.

But the 40 or so parents who marched into the Hamilton County Department of Education on Tuesday with protest signs in hand didn't make it past the front desk. After the groups asked for Smith, a receptionist rose to her feet and stayed on the phone for several minutes, though no one ever addressed the parents.

"I think this displays exactly what we've been saying. It's callous behavior," said parent Ryan Ledford, who led the group.

Parents and children from the east side of the county filed into the school system's central office to protest a rezoning proposal that could eventually force their children to change schools. The rezoning plan was unveiled to parents at a pair of public meetings last week. After reeling from the shock and raw emotion, some parents are now trying to slow down or at least question the rezoning process.

A lack of transparency has emerged as one of the group's biggest issues with school officials' plans to rezone, though school leaders say the process has been open and honest.

At a rezoning meeting Thursday, Ledford confronted Smith with a records request demanding a slew of documents on the process. Ledford told Smith he wanted the documents or a response by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

"Obviously, he's showed how he feels about the community and our voice," Ledford said.

Smith was unable to be reached on Tuesday. But on Monday he said he wasn't going to jump just because the parent group demanded it.

"I wouldn't expect a whole lot of response from me," he said. "I don't get drug into situations like that."

The superintendent said the rezoning process has been transparent and resembled previous rezonings. Ultimately, something must be done to alleviate overcrowding at East Hamilton and other schools, he said. East Hamilton has about 2,000 students, well over its capacity of 1,650.

"The problems that we're presenting to them are real," Smith said. "It is what it is out there at East Hamilton."

Jason and Ashley Mullican attended a rezoning meeting on Tuesday, hoping to get some answers on why their East Hamilton and Apison Elementary School students may be moved. Though they live in Apison, they'll no longer be zoned for that school if the plan is approved.

"I want to see why they chose us," Jason Mullican said. "A lot of this could have been avoided with a little common sense."

Parent Paige Stewart said she doesn't understand why her neighborhood is being rezoned from the high-achieving Westview Elementary School to the lower-performing Wolftever Elementary School.

"I can't comprehend that," she said.

Misty Butler said she's surprised by school officials' lack of involvement with parents on the proposal.

"You would think they would have said, 'OK, this is a big enough issue that we need to hear parents' thoughts, concerns and questions,'" Butler said.

Butler's fourth-grader is set to be rezoned from Westview and East Hamilton to Ooltewah schools, which she said doesn't make sense. She and others said they want explanations for why certain areas were removed and others remained in their current zones.

Butler conceded that not everyone will be happy with the final outcome, though she said most parents would be willing to meet somewhere in the middle.

"We were just told this is Plan A and there is no Plan B," she said. "It makes no sense."

Parents say they'll meet in the Belleau Woods neighborhood at 6 p.m. today to plan their next moves.

District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman said she thinks the current rezoning process is very similar to one a few years ago in her district, which covers Sale Creek and Soddy-Daisy.

"We're as transparent as we can be. We can't tell you what's going to happen in 10 years. Ten years ago, we didn't know that VW plant was coming here."

Thurman said Smith has taken much criticism for the plan, even though it was the board that created the problem several years ago. She said the board voted to make the East Hamilton zone too large, despite warnings from school officials.

"The school board is the one who voted for the zone to be too big to begin with," Thurman said. "Rick didn't have anything to do with it."

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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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