Hamilton County school board votes to keep moving forward on Partnership Zone option

Board member Tiffanie Robinson, right, listens as board member David Testerman voices his opposition to a state partnership zone for low performing schools during a meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

After spirited debate, Hamilton County school board members voted 7-2 Thursday night to move forward with conversations with the state about what a Partnership Zone will look like.

District 8 board member David Testerman and District 3 board member Joe Smith were the two "no" votes.

The state gave the district two options - a state-run Achievement School District or a shared governance with a proposed Partnership Zone - for intervention in the five schools that have shown a pattern of low performance: Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

Dalewood, both Orchard Knob schools and Woodmore have been on notice for poor performance since 2002. In 2012, they were placed on the state's priority, or iZone, list. All five iZone schools have failed to move off the list, with little to no improvement despite more than $11 million in grants to boost results over the past four years.

"We are glad the board has decided to move forward with the Partnership Zone option and will begin working with us on a comprehensive approach to supporting all the students in the district's Priority schools," state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. "We are looking forward to engaging more with the community and hearing from them about their ideas for driving improvement as we work together to establish the conditions for success in Hamilton County's Priority schools."

The vote on the Partnership Zone was not on Thursday night's agenda, even though McQueen had said she expected a vote at the board's September meeting. School board Chairman Steve Highlander said the vote was not scheduled since it was not formally requested.

Board members spent considerable time discussing whether to vote, voicing their concerns with the ASD and the Partnership Zone. Laura Encalade, representing McQueen, addressed their questions.

Encalade said the zone would be operated under a five-year contract, ensuring no policy changes are made.

District 3 board member Joe Smith worried what might happen with election changes next year.

"In a year from now, we will have a new governor and maybe a new [education] commissioner," he said. "That scares me."

Smith and others also criticized the ASD's track record for actually improving schools.

"The ASD is an epic fail; we know that," said Karitsa Mosley Jones, of District 5. "The Partnership Zone is uncharted territory, but we have the chance for our representatives to enact legislation to repeal what doesn't work."

But David Testerman, of District 8, was worried about the lack of legislation ahead of a Partnership Zone. State law must be changed to allow students to be represented by an appointed, rather than elected, school board.

"I think our legislative body needs to be involved in this discussion," Testerman said.

McQueen said in July she spoke with Hamilton County lawmakers and planned to pursue legislation allowing the Partnership Zone to legally move forward.

Several other board members shared Testerman's concern the Partnership Zone would have an unstable future without legislation in place.

The discussion heated up when state Sen. Todd Gardenhire spoke.

"This conversation has been going on a long time," he said, adding that if the legislation is passed, it ensured schools "are on the right track."

"There are three parties here: the state, school board and legislators," he said. "You have to enter into an agreement to start a discussion."

New Superintendent Bryan Johnson held off on disclosing his position until the end of the discussion. Once everyone had spoken, Johnson said he was in favor of the Partnership Zone, and said the board had discussed the matter for "way too long."

"For every parent, student, teacher, principal, we need to provide a clear picture of what lies ahead," he said.

Mosley Jones and Tiffanie Robinson, District 4 board member, said they have spent months speaking to and listening to their constituents. The iZone schools are all within their districts.

"I am incredibly frustrated," Robinson said, adding she was ready to vote, but didn't think it should happen if all of the board members weren't prepared. "I don't want these schools to be turned over to the ASD."

Mosley Jones shared Robinson's frustration, but said the board needed to move forward.

"We do have the lives of children and their legacy and their intellect in our hands," she said. "And we have to what is right. Morally, economically, we have to do what is right."

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.