Schools dominate mayor's community conversations

photo County Mayor Jim Coppinger, center, talks with parents at Normal Park Museum Upper Magnet School. Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press

After Hamilton County commissioners selected Jim Coppinger in January for the county's top job following a tumultuous selection process, the new mayor decided it was time to change the conversation.

And for more than a month, the conversation has focused primarily on the county's schools.

Coppinger and his spokesman, Mike Dunne, arranged a series of community meetings at middle schools in all nine commission districts. The "County Conversations" often included the district's school board member and other elected officials.

"I thought it was important, given the process that we had been through with the selection, to go out and see as many people as we could in the nine respective districts," Coppinger said. "It's gone pretty much like we thought it would. ... Most of [what is said] is about education, which is really a good sign."

The choice of venue was born out of necessity since schools have ample space and parking, Coppinger said. And, he noted, nothing is as important as education.

Or as controversial, at times.

At Soddy-Daisy Middle School on Feb. 1, for example, school board member Rhonda Thurman and Commissioner Fred Skillern took turns criticizing Superintendent Jim Scales and the school system.

Topics addressed at County Conversations meetings:ā€¢ Schoolsā€¢ Growth issues, including annexation and consolidation of servicesā€¢ How the county spends public money, such as discretionary spendingā€¢ Job creationā€¢ CrimeSource: County Conversations meetings

In another meeting at East Hamilton School, angry parents wanted answers about why high school athletic facilities weren't finished.

Coppinger said those discussions were civil.

"They may state their concerns; they may state it with passion," Coppinger said. "It's been a very controlled environment."

The conversations have drawn other local officials as well. U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., sent a representative to listen and keep his office informed.

"Chuck is wanting to make sure that he stays in close communication with county officials and county leadership and making sure everybody's on the same page," spokesman Jordan Powell said.

At each meeting, participants are asked to fill out cards listing their concerns about the community. John Bridger, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, is gathering the data and compiling a report for Coppinger about what he's learning.

Bridger said he hasn't looked at any of the cards before the conversations wrap up because he does not want them to color his conclusions. He said the data will help the RPA plan for the growth.

"If people are thinking about education, that needs to be part of the regional plan scope," he said.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he thinks the conversations have been productive for commissioners as well.

"There should be more of them," Henry said.

Coppinger will be at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Monday for the District 4 meeting with Commissioner Warren Mackey.

One district will get another meeting. Commissioner Joe Graham asked Coppinger to swing by District 6 again, this time to East Lake Academy on March 28. The mayor visited Lookout Valley Middle High School on Feb. 22, but Graham said there needed to be a conversation with more inner-city representation.

"To get out in the public one on one and say, 'Ask whatever you want to,' I think that speaks volumes of Jim Coppinger as our mayor," Graham said.