“I'm concerned that an independent school district will result in us paying more in taxes and getting less.”
Few of the dozens of citizens who addressed the Signal Mountain Town Council on Monday night on the topic of a possible breakaway from Hamilton County Schools expressed support for such a move.
Despite palpable tension, the council allowed for back-and-forth comments between citizens at the public forum and the council members, including Mayor Chris Howley, on topics ranging from special education, ownership of the Signal Mountain school buildings, and the process and attitude of the council's current investigation.
"After some consideration of this issue, I'm against the creation of an independent school district," said resident Jennifer Terry. "It puts an unnecessary and risky financial obligation on the town of Signal Mountain and taxpayers. I'm concerned it will limit school choice for my family and residents of Signal Mountain."
"I'm concerned that an independent school district will result in us paying more in taxes and getting less," she added.
Terry's opinion was echoed by many in the crowd, as well as by those who have written to the council, council member Dan Landrum said.
Of the emails received before Monday night's meeting, 79 percent of them were opposed to a split, Landrum said.
Since February, a seven-member committee has been exploring whether or not Signal Mountain can break away from Hamilton County Schools, creating a separate district. Those in favor argue the move would give mountain residents more autonomy and localized control over the schools.
"This conversation has been causing uneasiness among the students and the teachers," said Carson Bock, 14, a freshman at Signal Mountain Middle/High School. "We are concerned and we do know what this issue is."
Michael McCamish, a resident of unincorporated Hamilton County and member of the Stay with HCDE (the Hamilton County Department of Education) group, echoed teachers' concerns about a split.
"We've talked to teachers and most, if not all of them, are against the split," McCamish said.
Stay with HCDE, which is led by a group of four people concerned with the way the council has approached the issue since its inception, created a petition earlier this year that has been signed by 852 people against a breakaway.
Some expressed concern that residents who supported a split did not feel comfortable expressing their opinions.
"There are plenty of people who do support this. There are also plenty of people who do support this who don't feel comfortable expressing their support," Signal Mountain resident Casey Risby said.
Last week, the town council held a public forum at which representatives from municipalities and school districts in Shelby County shared their districts' experiences and weighed in on Signal's situation.
Superintendents came from Germantown Municipal School District and Arlington Community Schools in West Tennessee near Memphis, which were among six municipalities in Shelby County started their own districts after the Memphis school district merged in 2013 with Shelby County Schools in one of the nation's largest school mergers.
Despite comments from Shelby County representatives that the six municipalities' split from the county did not negatively affect the students left behind, other data shows that it had. One national report released earlier this year by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group, shows persistent inequalities in Shelby County due to the split. The report cited Shelby County's split as the nation's "most egregious example" of fractured school districts contributing to segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.
Though the issue of diversity on the mountain has not been a large factor in discussions of a Signal Mountain split, some in the community are worried there is a racial, or other issue of inequity, at play.
"There is maybe an elephant in the room, I'm not sure. I'm not hearing anything about diversity or inclusiveness," said Signal Mountain resident Linda Pillow. "We seem to be a very white, very Christian community isolated on top of a mountain and any move attempting to isolating ourselves any further is a big move in the wrong direction."
Overall, many in the crowd seemed frustrated with the length of time devoted to discussing the question. Many felt the council had not taken stock of what the community wants.
"I think they should go ahead and do it, and have a referendum," said Hamilton County Board of Education member Kathy Lennon, who represents the district in which Signal Mountain lies. "That way they can know what the community thinks."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.