Candidates for the District 6 seat on the Hamilton County school board squared off over the roles and responsibilities of school board members and the Hamilton County Department of Education at a Tuesday night debate.
The debate was the second in a series hosted by UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0, in partnership with other community organizations to inform voters about the candidates for the five school board seats up for re-election this August.
Jenny Hill, a local small business owner and parent of Hamilton County students, and Michael Henry, an entrepreneur, are running for the seat that will be left vacant by Joe Galloway. It is the only school board race that does not involve an incumbent. Four other board members are up for re-election this year, with each facing a single opponent.
Questions — and the candidates' answers — Tuesday night shed light on where they stand on a myriad of issues including integration of schools, workforce development, budgeting and early childhood education.
After the debate, Hill said she felt some other candidates were disconnected about the actual role of a school board member.
"The primary role is to supervise the superintendent," Hill said. "And serve an advisory role and to represent all children." Hill emphasized during the debate that the primary ethical responsibility of a school board member is putting the child first, and that excited her.
If elected, Hill said her top three priorities would be developing a strategic plan, conducting an independent audit of the conditions of the district's buildings, and creating a multi-year budget.
Henry's included working collaboratively with not only other board members, but county commissioners, city council members and other leaders, prioritizing issues and working toward them, and analyzing the budget and identifying possible inefficiencies.
The responsibility of the school system, which already serves more than 43,000 students, was also addressed when the moderator Lorean Mays, a member of UnifiEd's Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) project steering committee, asked the candidates how they felt about early childhood education.
Both Henry and Hill alluded that it is not the school system's responsibility to address children's educations before they enter kindergarten — despite only about 42 percent of Hamilton County students entering kindergarten ready to learn.
Both candidates acknowledge the work done by the City of Chattanooga and organizations like Chattanooga 2.0 in leading important efforts in the realm of early childhood.
Henry emphasized that preschool initiatives should be "augmented" to those organizations that are already leading the charge.
Hill also acknowledged the school board has other, more pressing priorities.
"Honestly, right now we have priorities related to crumbling buildings, to segregation, to lack of strategic focus, to lack of readiness and we can't make everything our No. 1 priority," Hill said.
Both candidates agreed the school system cannot accomplish everything alone, especially in regards to ensuring equity across the county without collaboration from other stakeholders.
UnifiEd has also invited each candidate to fill out questionnaires, which are available online and in-person before each debate. The questionnaires helped inspire the questions asked, and staff members also use them to watch for inconsistencies in candidates' stances on issues.
"We see our role as ensuring voters make educated choices on which candidates align most closely with their values," said Natalie Cook, interim executive director for UnifiEd.
UnifiEd asked candidates to answer questions about the community priorities identified through the APEX project, though not all candidates responded. Videos from the debates will also be available on the organization's website.
Three more debates will be held over the next few weeks. For more information, visit unifi-ed.org/2018-debates.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.