Follow live coverage from today's Hamilton County School Board meeting starting at 4:30 p.m. here.
Local black leaders including ministers, county commissioners and Board of Education members joined with state Rep. JoAnne Favors Wednesday, calling out a Hamilton County school board member for what they say are racist comments about poor children in inner-city schools.
Favors, D-Chattanooga, is calling for school board member Rhonda Thurman to resign and formally apologize for a statement published in Sunday's Chattanooga Times Free Press. In the story, Thurman said inner-city schools get too much attention and money without much payoff. Her District 1 is in North Hamilton County, including Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek.
"I don't think suburban students have been treated fairly," she said in the story. "Poor people learn. Slaves learned to read. I don't know why poor people can't learn to read and write. I have a lot of poor people in my family, but they are still expected to learn."
Reaction to the comments was swift and loud, according to Favors. She said she has heard from people all over the state about what Thurman said. The Democratic lawmaker said Thurman's comments were "disheartening" and showed that she is an ineffective board member.
"Many citizens in this community find it quite alarming that freshman school board members and some county commissioners are so heavily influenced by the least educated among them," Favors said Wednesday during a news conference at the school system's central office. "They must remember that an empty wagon makes the most noise."
The school board's two black members, George Ricks and Jeffrey Wilson, attended the news conference along with Warren Mackey and Gregory Beck, the two black Hamilton County commissioners.
Ricks said he agreed with Favors and believes Thurman's comments were racist.
"When you have African-Americans getting moved from positions, that hurts," Ricks said. "What are you supposed to think?"
Joe Rowe, first vice president of the NAACP, said he believes Thurman's comments will hurt the community by making Chattanooga appear backward.
"Teachers and students and business people are concerned," he said. "What if this had happened before Volkswagen had come in?"
Reached for comment after Favors' news conference, Thurman refused to speak to the Times Free Press.
"They can read what I have to say somewhere else," she said by telephone.
She told other media she won't step down and that she said nothing wrong.
Some of her supporters on the school board said that, while they are concerned about her statement, Thurman isn't a racist.
"Sometimes we speak without thinking," said school board Chairman Mike Evatt.
On May 26, the school board voted 6-3 to buy out then-Superintendent Jim Scales' contract, which will cost the county between $285,000 and $300,000.
Thurman was a longtime political opponent of Scales and has pushed hard to get a local person in the position.
In Sunday's exclusive interview with the Times Free Press, Scales said Thurman and some Hamilton County commissioners became his political enemies because he wouldn't hire their friends.
The school board named Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith as interim superintendent. He is expected to be appointed superintendent tonight after school board members changed their own rules to fast-track him into the position.
Favors said she and several others plan to attend the school board meeting tonight to watch the proceedings.
Board members Thurman, Everett Fairchild, David Testerman, Mike Evatt and Joe Galloway voted in favor of changing the board's hiring policy last month. Under the new rules, they no longer must hold public interviews, conduct an outside search or wait more than 15 days before naming a new superintendent.
Galloway said he will vote to hire Smith, who he said is an excellent candidate with more than 20 years experience in local schools. Smith also will have a better rapport with county commissioners and possibly secure schools more money, Galloway said.
But he said supporting Smith doesn't lump him in a voting bloc on the board with Thurman. He is "catching tons of flak" about supporting Smith, he said, but thinks it's the right thing for students.
"I want to move forward with those inner-city kids," said Galloway. "I don't have an ax to grind."