The Signal Mountain School System Viability Committee returned from Shelby County last week with new insights about the impact splitting away from Hamilton County Schools could have on the town and its students, but some residents still feel the committee isn't getting the full picture.
During the three-day trip, SSVC members met with superintendents and mayors from all but one of the six municipalities near Memphis that broke away from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to create their own school districts.
The feedback from the municipality leaders was "universally positive," committee members reported at their regular meeting July 5. They cited a myriad of benefits they heard, such as increased decision-making power, improved academic performance and increased property values within the new districts.
"They just had really great things to say about the impacts on their towns," committee member Melissa Wood said during the meeting.
But Signal Mountain resident Elizabeth Baker, who traveled to Shelby County and attended some of the meetings, said she was disappointed that the committee only met with officials from the municipalities, which she argued gave them "the rosiest picture possible."
"I don't ever want to come off as being negative toward SSVC, because these people are volunteers who have given hundreds of hours, but they were only meeting with very select people," said Baker. "I think what they were hearing and what they were asking was very one-sided."
SSVC Chair John Friedl pointed out that the committee did meet with someone from the county during their fact-finding trip: David Pickler, the former chairman of the Shelby County Board of Education, whom Friedl said also spoke positively about the split.
Still, Michael McCamish, spokesperson for Stay With HCDE, a group of mountaintop residents formed in opposition to leaving county schools, said he had hoped the meetings would include those currently with the county, as well as those disgruntled by the split.
He said his group is working with Baker to compile a report that includes contradictions between what was reported by the SSVC based on this trip and what she heard during her own research on the trip, which the group plans to make public once complete.
For instance, Baker said she met with parents from both the independent school districts and county schools, in addition to teachers and Shelby County leaders. While she said she heard from parents in two of the municipalities who loved the smaller school district, listing similar benefits to those mentioned in the SSVC's report, Baker said she also heard from parents in the unincorporated areas of Shelby County just outside municipal school districts who felt abandoned.
According to the parents' reports, when schools located near the independent school districts closed because much of the student population had transferred to municipal schools, the students who opted not to go to municipal schools or did not meet the requirements for enrollment no longer had a community school in their neighborhood.
"Some of them have to be bused across a municipal school district to another Shelby County school," Baker said. "They were the ones hit the hardest by this."
When asked about the criticism, Friedl said he was unsure those conversations would have yielded the kind of information the town council had commissioned them to investigate. He reiterated that the committee was formed only to investigate whether creating a separate school district was possible, not whether it was something the town should or shouldn't pursue.
"If our task was to investigate whether it's a good idea to do it and whether we should recommend that the town council should do this, then we'd have a different name and ... a different mission statement, and we would be talking to different people," he said.
McCamish argued that the exclusion speaks to a larger issue with the overall investigation, referencing that town officials had not met with the Hamilton County Department of Education to discuss the issues and needs driving the town's investigation to form a separate district for its schools.
Some residents also took issue with the positive responses garnered from the trip, saying the committee did not ask tough questions about the municipalities' hurdles during the process.
Friedl said the committee asked open-ended questions looking for both sides of the issue — which yielded both positive and negative responses. He pointed to the tax increase required by each of the municipalities to fund its new district, as well as the year municipality leaders spent in court fighting Shelby County.
"I don't think any of us are coming at this with a predetermined outcome," Friedl said. "All I can ask is that people just wait until we finish our job and write our report and then they can go to the town council and speak their piece. That's the way this is supposed to work."