Shelby County visit provides insight for possible Signal Mountain schools split

This 2008 photo shows the exterior of Signal Mountain Middle/High School.
This 2008 photo shows the exterior of Signal Mountain Middle/High School.

A week after traveling to Shelby County, the committee investigating the viability of launching a separate school district on Signal Mountain discussed takeaways from the trip.

Many of the committee members described the "fact-finding" trip in positive terms during a meeting Wednesday night. They said the three days of meetings with superintendents and mayors from five of the six municipalities in Shelby County that created their own school systems in 2014 answered a lot of their questions.

Melissa Wood, a member of the Signal Mountain committee, said leaders from the municipalities emphasized the benefits of having more localized control over their schools.

"They talked a lot about having decision-making power," Wood said. "And if they have a problem or something to address, they don't have to go through layers of bureaucracy to problem-solve."

Each of the municipalities has raised taxes for the municipal school districts, and Wood said that's because residents wanted to increase funding for their schools.

"They talked about how it was important for them to fund their schools," she said. "They wanted to do that."

Since February, the seven- member committee has been investigating whether Signal Mountain can break away from Hamilton County Schools, creating a separate district with three of the county's top-performing schools - Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary. The schools educate about 2,500 students and a very small share of minority and poor students.

The six municipalities in Shelby County started their own districts after the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district merged with the primarily white Shelby County Schools in one of the largest school mergers in the nation's history in 2013.

The merger created an impetus for the six towns to start their own school districts, as parents were concerned the quality of their schools would diminish and their kids would not be represented in a countywide school district serving more than 100,000 students.

Tom McCullough, a member of the Signal Mountain committee and former educator, said the situation here in Hamilton County is different. He said the mountain is considering starting it's own school district because it has a desire for self-governance.

"Local control is power," McCullough said.

Charlie Spencer, a fellow committee member, agreed the motivation was different for the municipalities in Shelby County, saying they had a "burning platform."

Spencer said it was compelling to hear how each of the municipalities in Shelby County has a vision for their schools. He advised the committee to have more in-depth conversations about how they and the community may want to improve the mountain's schools, and then build a budget that reflects the vision.

"What are the variety of ways we might go about, going from what I consider very high-performing schools right now, and increasing the performance of those schools," he asked.

Amy Wakim, a member of the committee, noted how the municipalities in Shelby County made it seamless for teachers and administrators to stay in the schools in the municipal district, or go to the county system.

"It was up to their discretion," Wakim said.

John Friedl, chairman of the committee, also noted how the group was told by legal counsel for the municipal districts about a way Signal Mountain's school governance could extend beyond town residents, if a separate school district is formed. Since students from Walden and the unincorporated parts of the mountain attend these schools, Friedl said it's important that residents of those areas also be a part of the new district's governance.

After the meeting, Elisabeth Baker, a mom of two kids at Thrasher Elementary who also traveled to Shelby County and attended several of the meetings, said she perceived some of the conversations differently than how committee members described them Wednesday night.

During the meetings she attended with the committee, Baker said she was discouraged that committee members didn't ask many questions about the roadblocks or hurdles the municipal districts have faced.

"It seemed they were only looking for the positives," she said.

While in Shelby County, Baker also met with people still a part of the county school system, adding that she was upset Signal Mountain's committee only met with leaders of the municipalities.

"I think there may be another side to the story," Baker said.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.

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