Decision expected for District 3 seat

Hamilton County Commission is expected to name a replacement March 29 to fill the District 3 school board seat vacated by Everett Fairchild, who resigned from his post for health reasons March 15. There are 11 candidates seeking to fill the remainder of his term until 2014.

Candidates for the post include Mendi Catlett, Mary Lewis, Ken Smith, David Cowan, Laurie Shipley, Tammy Zumbrun, James Goebel, Greg Martin, Joy Ward, Joe Smith and Charles Elliott. At least four are current or former educators, and at least two had Fairchild as a principal during their own education.

Parents and grandparents of students in Hamilton County's District 3 joined elected officials from the county and city of Chattanooga to hear the responses of the candidates during a public forum held at Hixson Middle School hosted by Friends of Hixson.

"We think education is the heart and soul of a thriving community," said Marv Martin, as to why Friends of Hixson decided to hold the forum. Martin served on the forum's panel with CPA David Queen and Memorial Hospital Hixson Senior Vice President Deb Moore. Chip Chapman of WDEF News 12 was the evening's moderator.

"To see [the candidates] and listen to them side by side answering kind of the same question gives you a good measuring stick to size them up and see which are strong in the areas of importance to me," said District 4 Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey.

Of the 11 candidates, retired Hixson Middle School administrator David Cowan is the only one to say he does not currently and has never had a child in District 3. Joe Smith was the sole candidate to state he does not plan to run for election at the conclusion of Fairchild's term in 2014.

Two candidates have prior school board experience. Charles Elliott served on the board of the Chattanooga City School System from 1989-1997 and Greg Martin served on a school board in Louisiana.

Bill Ericson, the grandparent of a student in District 3, said he feels public forums are important because candidates are more likely to be honest when they lack time to prepare.

"When you put people on the spot, they say the first thing that comes into their head," he said.

He said he felt the most interesting aspect of the forum was the emphasis on how the school board spends taxpayer money.

Several candidates said they would like to see more accountability in how the board spends the funds it receives.

"We need to be good stewards of the funds," said Shipley. "We've got to figure out if these funds are being spent wisely."

Ken Smith, who ran for the District 3 seat in 2010, complained about the lack of an evaluation process to determine if certain programs in the schools are really helping students.

"We won't be able to get more funding until people believe we spend the money we get wisely," said Zumbrun.

The second half of the program allowed audience members to submit anonymous questions for the candidates. Topics included how the candidate would deal with overcrowded schools and rezoning, how many volunteer hours they have clocked in District 3 schools and how they plan to avoid expensive superintendent contract buyouts. Other questions involved how the candidates would lower teen pregnancy and drop-out rates, their vision for Hamilton County Schools and the major obstacles to that vision, and why more money and better teachers seem to go to the better schools in the county.