School board members denounce UnifiEd's plan for integrating Hamilton County schools

Two Hamilton County school board members, Joe Smith and Rhonda Thurman, are speaking out against local nonprofit UnifiEd and the racial and socioeconomic integration the organization calls for in one of its policy projects.

In an announcement Friday, Thurman and Smith said they reject the idea presented by UnifiEd's Action Plan for Education Excellence project, which suggests the district increase integration in schools by redrawing attendance zones, increasing magnet school options or even implementing open enrollment, and providing more adequate transportation for students to attend their desired or zoned schools.

"I simply do not believe what UnifiEd believes," Thurman, of District 1, said in a statement. "I don't think there are many people in Hamilton County who will agree with what they are proposing."

Last year, UnifiEd, an education advocacy organization, launched the APEX project. It aimed to survey the community about its priorities and eventually develop a policy platform that candidates could endorse and that would recommend solutions and best practices for improving education in Hamilton County's public schools.

"The APEX project sought as much community input as our staff and team of volunteers could assemble over the course of six months, and the thousands of responses we received represented every corner of this county, including the districts Mr. Smith and Ms. Thurman represent," said Natalie Cook, interim executive director for UnifiEd. "Breaking up concentrated poverty in our schools was identified as a top issue in the community engagement process that engaged more than 4,000 people across Hamilton County."

Smith, however, does not believe that is UnifiEd's complete intention.

"People believe Unifi-Ed's purpose is to work in concert with many others to better public education in Hamilton County," Smith, of District 3, said in a statement. "That changed last fall when they announced the APEX project and formed a political action committee. I didn't realize what it meant then, but I do today."

There was quick reaction to the release titled "Board Members Thurman, Smith to Unifi-Ed: We Don't Believe What You Believe Board Members Reject 'Integration' Called for in APEX Platform," including from UnifiEd.

"These school board members' stance and rhetoric is especially concerning given the long history of segregation in Hamilton County schools," read a statement from UnifiEd in response.

The response reflects some community members' concern that the board members' disapproval of the APEX report's plan for integration is reflective of broader disapproval of the need to desegregate schools.

"I grew up in segregated schools in Hamilton County and was an educator in them for decades. I also taught in a magnet school where I saw the power of a diverse student body. Just because a few kids coming from segregated schools 'make it,' some think segregation can work," said Edna Varner, a retired educator and UnifiEd's board chairwoman, in a statement. "Too few make it, though, and it's an unbelievable struggle for those who do. That is not a fair burden to put on our children. Today, only 3 percent of our students graduating from schools with high concentrations of poverty graduate ready for college or career. Segregated schools rob children of their potential and hurt our entire community."

The issue was also highlighted in the two school board candidate debates hosted by UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0 that were held this week. Smith said he felt that was inappropriate.

"They're sticking their noses in what's supposed to be a nonpartisan race," Smith said. "What we ought to be talking about is what's best for our schools."

At Monday's District 8 debate, moderator Allison Lebovitz asked candidates what their plan would be to racially and socioeconomically integrate public schools, and the same question was posed to candidates on Tuesday at the District 6 debate by moderator Lorean Mays.

"[UnifiEd] calls for using busing to promote integration," Thurman said in a statement, referring to calls for a transportation policy in the APEX report to support integration. "Unifi-Ed may think that busing is a new and innovative idea, but the truth is that busing was tried in the '60's, '70's and '80's. It did not work then and it will not work now, I don't care what the research says."

Smith and Thurman also said they don't believe their constituents agree with what the APEX policy calls for in local schools.

"I read every word of the report after we received it in April, and I have talked with the education leaders in my district about this policy," Smith said in a statement. "I can't support what it says. I am not sure how [UnifiEd] can say this represents Hamilton County, because I know it doesn't represent what the people of District 3 believe. Hamilton County is a conservative place, and [UnifiEd] has shown itself to be way far to the left on what they believe."

Thurman echoed his sentiments.

"[UnifiEd] hasn't considered the cost of doing anything," Thurman said in a statement. "This is my county, I don't need liberals from out of town coming here telling me what's best for people in Hamilton County and ordering me to tell the County Commission to take more money from taxpayers."

Smith is on the ballot for the District 3 seat this year, running against Miracle Hurley. UnifiEd prompted all 10 school board candidates to fill out a questionnaire to be posted on its website. The political action committee, UnifiEd Action PAC, created last fall and led by former UnifiEd executive director Jonas Barriere, will conduct interviews with each candidate that could lead to endorsements and support from the organization.

This political action committee closely tied to a nonprofit organization also has ruffled feathers.

"I just want people to know what UnifiEd is up to, that this is their plan," Thurman said. "I want people of Hamilton County to know what's going on. I have a problem with UnifiEd, I think it's time for them to be exposed."

Yet it is evident that equity in schools is a conversation the school system wants to have. This spring, under Superintendent Bryan Johnson's leadership, the district launched a equity task force that has been tasked with addressing inequities and ensuring access to quality opportunities for students in all schools.

Members of UnifiEd are on that task force, along with representatives from the Chattanooga chapter of the NAACP. That organization also presented a plan to the school board calling for desegregation of 12 of the district's schools.

Thurman doesn't feel that the task force is needed, though.

"To have a task force implies that we have not been equitable up until now and that is not true," she said. "It makes it look like if we had to create a task force, we aren't equitable. That's offensive to me."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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