Cooper: Hamilton County voters want board accountability

Hamilton County District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman was the only one of four incumbents to keep her seat in Thursday's election.
Hamilton County District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman was the only one of four incumbents to keep her seat in Thursday's election.

Hamilton County general and Tennessee primary election stories

Hamilton County residents spoke with their votes about the state of their school system Thursday, ousting three incumbents and ushering in a Board of Education in which a majority of members have said they want to make the district more accountable.

Kathy Lennon, a former parochial school educator, in District 2, Tiffanie Robinson, president of Lamp Post Properties, in District 4, and Joe Wingate, a Chattanooga State professor and coach, in District 7, toppled incumbents Dr. Jonathan Welch, George Ricks and Donna Horn, respectively. They join re-election winner Rhonda Thurman, who retained her seat by beating Dr. Patti Skates and Jason Moses in District 1.

We hope the three new members, plus Thurman, who often has been alone in questioning district policy, can find at least one other member to form a coalition to fashion a more independent, responsible and transparent board.

Voters soured on current members after they gave former Superintendent Rick Smith a new contract last summer despite low district test scores and then didn't hold his feet to the fire on the dissemination of information about an Ooltewah High School rape case, a scathing report from the state Department of Education and more low test scores. Then, when pressure was brought to bear on Smith, the board couldn't get a second vote to buy him out. Eventually, he resigned anyway.

The new board's most important assignment will be to hire a new superintendent to replace interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly. Kelly, who was a part of Smith's central office cabinet, won a three-way decision from board members to claim the interim superintendent post in April.

The rest of the Hamilton County general election ballot and state Republican and Democratic primaries, all of which drew another poor turnout, produced few real surprises.

Republican County Commissioner Marty Haynes won a surprisingly easy race for assessor of property over Democratic businessman Mark Siedlecki. The campaign to replace the retiring Bill Bennett had no discernible issues until Siedlecki attempted to make one out of a senior tax freeze. Tennessee voters in 2006 authorized local governments to approve such a freeze, but the Hamilton County Commission has not done so, members say, because they have not raised taxes since 2007.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and commissioners have said they would take a look at a freeze when they next have to raise taxes, but Siedlecki maintained taxes had gone up. In fact, the county's tax revenue has gone up, meaning higher taxes for some taxpayers, because property values have gone up. But for others, the taxes have gone down.

Evidently, the voters didn't buy the semantics argument.

Voters also chose 28-year-old Democrat Melody Shekari, who served a fellowship in the office of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, to face three-term U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in November.

Shekari knocked off University of Tennessee at Chattanooga public relations professor Michael Friedman and Wal-Mart employee George Ryan Love to win the Democratic race. Fleischmann, who had three previous narrow primary wins, easily cruised past Athens plant worker and Army veteran Geoffery Smith and businessman Allan Levene. The November race also will include independents Topher Kersting, Cassandra Mitchell and Rick Tyler.

In the primary for state Senate District 10, Highland Park neighborhood activist and self-proclaimed "Bernie Sanders Democrat" Khristy Wilkinson upset the favored Nick Wilkinson, deputy administrator in the city of Chattanooga office of economic development. Cleveland entrepreneur Ty O'Grady finished third. Wilkinson now faces unopposed Republican incumbent Todd Gardenhire in November.

Berke, hoping to ensure one of his closest advisers had a shot at winning back the seat for Democrats that the mayor once held, contributed $1,000 to Wilkinson's campaign and then hosted a fundraiser for him.

In the only two contested state legislature primary races, District 28 Democratic incumbent JoAnne Favors outdistanced businessman Dennis Clark, and in District 29, Republican incumbent Mike Carter bested Collegedale Commissioner Ethan White. Neither winner has an opponent in the November general election.

That's not the case for several other members of the Hamilton County delegation, none of whom had a primary opponent. In District 27, incumbent Republican Patsy Hazlewood will face Democrat Steve Gordon. In District 30, incumbent Republican Marc Gravitt will be challenged by Democrat Katie Cowley and independent Patrick Hickey.

Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, in District 26, had no primary opponent and does not have one in the general election.

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