Despite recent animosity toward one of the hosting organizations, Hamilton County school board member Joe Smith, of District 3, still showed up to face off against his opponent, Miracle Hurley, in a debate put on by UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0 on Monday night.
In recent weeks, Smith and fellow school board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, caused a stir when the duo spoke out against the racial and socioeconomic integration called for in UnifiEd's Action Plan for Educational Excellence project report.
› When: May 29, from 6 to 8 p.m.
› Where: Dalewood Middle School
› Who: Incumbent Karitsa Mosley Jones and Ann Pierre Jones
At the beginning of the debate — the fourth in a series of five debates — Smith briefly commented on the ongoing controversy.
"Over the last few weeks, there have been so very many hurtful things that have been said. Some of those things have been said by the very organization that's sponsoring this thing tonight. ... I want you to know, I believe so much in diversity," Smith said. "What I would like to do is invite you all to my house at supper time and see what diversity looks like."
Smith later added, "In no form or fashion is Joe Smith opposed to the integration of public schools. I've been accused of that, but if you know me, my life is a testimony to the opposite."
However, Smith did acknowledge that he did not believe in the "philosophy" of intentional racial and socioeconomic integration that UnifiEd and other candidates advocate for.
His opponent disagreed.
"Aside from the controversy that's happened over the past few weeks, I will say that racial and socioeconomic integration is needed," Hurley, the program director for Healthy Transitions, said.
Though not providing specific strategies for how such integration could be accomplished, she noted that there were successful models of such diversity in thriving schools already in the district that the school system could emulate.
Smith instead advocated for open enrollment and community schools, a popular model that the district has already established at Red Bank High School and is pursuing in several schools in the Opportunity Zone.
Both candidates seemed to agree that students needed wraparound supports to be successful, though they did not always see eye to eye on whose fault it was that students were coming to school unprepared, whether it was from lack of parental involvement or guidance or lack of support for struggling families.
"We want the school system to fix all this. We can't legislate morality. We just can't. It's not the school board's responsibility to do that," Smith said.
"When we look at our parents, when we look at our children ... it's not a morality issue for every family out there. There's a lot of parents out there who are trying to make ends meet," she said.
She also addressed equity in education, a hot topic for most local education organizations, and her belief that there are "two Chattanoogas."
"We have two Chattanoogas. We have Chattanooga where we have needs, we have gaps in our community where our children are not being provided with what they need to thrive. And we have Chattanooga where parents are able to provide what their children need," Hurley said.
Smith agreed that equity was important, even if combating inequities does not include moving students to wealthier schools. He cited extra resources and wraparound supports, as well as training for teachers and counselors as ways to better support students in struggling schools.
The candidates did agree on some topics: the need for transparency on the board and working together with other elected officials, and the devastating impact of school shootings and the need to invest in ways to protect students. Smith spoke enthusiastically of what the school board has accomplished under new Superintendent Bryan Johnson.
The debate at Hixson High School was well attended, with appearances by elected officials including Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, County Commissioner Greg Martin and several candidates for local offices. UnifiEd board members were also present, as well as Jonas Barriere, executive director of the UnifiEd Action PAC.
The political action committee, which released public endorsements of county commission candidates before the May primary, has been interviewing school board candidates but has not publicly endorsed any yet.
Smith has served on the school board since 2016, when he was appointed by the county commission after Martin, who he had run against, won the commission seat.
The nonpartisan school board election is part of the general election on August 2.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.