Hamilton County mayor announces joint commission, school board meeting as community calls for elected officials to work together

Hamilton County School Board and Hamilton County Commissioners wrap around a table at the Hamilton County Board of Education during a joint meeting Monday, January 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Hamilton County School Board and Hamilton County Commissioners wrap around a table at the Hamilton County Board of Education during a joint meeting Monday, January 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

As funding public education remains a contentious debate in Hamilton County, Mayor Jim Coppinger on Wednesday announced a joint meeting, planned for next month, between the county commission and school board members.

Coppinger's announcement came a day after a group of teachers, known as Hamilton County United, invited all 18 commissioners and school board members to a town hall planned for Nov. 17 to discuss teacher pay. The same group was behind an open letter calling out five commissioners who have voted against increasing funding for public education this year.

"Dr. Johnson and myself have had quite a few conversations since our last meeting two weeks ago and we would like to host a joint meeting between the commission and the school board," Coppinger said. "To have some civil conversations and not be confrontational, but to talk about some of the issues that I'm concerned about as it relates to schools, and I know you guys and gals will have some input into that. We have a number of things facing education out there and we can use this as an opportunity to engage in some dialogue that will be helpful going forward."

The meetings come after a dramatic year of budgeting that left both bodies concerned about the future.

In public announcements, members of the county commission discussed a teacher's recent call for a joint town hall meeting between the Hamilton County Board of Education and the commission to discuss funding.

"We all received an email from a Hamilton County teacher this morning [who] has requested the presence of the commission and the school board to come together for a town hall meeting with regard to issues that we are facing here in Hamilton County with regards to public education," said David Sharpe, District 6 commissioner and chairman of the county's Education Committee. "I think that this is a good idea. I know it's something we have tried to do for quite some time over the course of the past couple years I look forward to being there for the conversation and I hope my colleagues will join me."

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— Teacher Town Hall Meeting: Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. at Brainerd Recreation Center, 1010 N. Moore Road.— Joint County Commission and Board of Education Meeting: Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. at Red Bank Middle School, 3701 Tom Weathers Drive.

There have been calls from both governing bodies to work together, especially since the fallout of this year's budget process. At the Oct. 23 commission meeting, school board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4, called on the bodies to come together.

"We have real problems in this community. And I think as elected officials, the nine of you, the nine of us, there are 18 people who care deeply about this community and we have to figure how to start solving these problems," Robinson said.

Kendra Young, one of the teachers behind this month's town hall and the open letter, said these calls to work together are encouraging, but haven't seemed to come to fruition yet.

"It's time to hash this out," she told the Times Free Press Tuesday. "It's time to have a productive conversation about things that are doable."

At least five school board members have already agreed to attend the Nov. 17 town hall hosted by the teachers, but some commissioners believe the issue of public education funding has been dragged out for too long this year.

"The chairman of the education committee last year tried to have two joint meetings which the chairman of the [school] board and superintendent were unable to accommodate," said District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd. "To have an employee of Dr. Johnson invite the commission to a joint meeting seems quite inappropriate. I've never met with a group of police officers at their demand. I've never met with a group of county employees at their demand. It always has a formal request and their administrative staff always hosts the meetings."

Boyd, who is known to distrust the school board's spending, said he would not attend the meeting called by a teacher.

"I see this as an opportunity to orchestrate some drama on the issue of teacher pay. I see it as a decisive move [by] this small group of teachers who are screaming and yelling," Boyd said, adding that the commission was not the appropriate place to go with teacher pay concerns. "I'll reiterate that you're barking up the wrong tree. This commission gives a lump sum amount of money to the school board and they allocate it where they seem fit. If they want to talk about teacher pay, they don't need to be talking to Tim Boyd."

Boyd's counterpart, school board member Tucker McClendon, told the Times Free Press that he believes it is an elected official's job to hear from constituents.

"I think our job is to be easily accessible to the people we represent. And I think it's our duty to hear them out," he said.

Board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, echoed McClendon and said she was glad that the group of teachers - who have not been endorsed by the district and do not represent Superintendent Bryan Johnson - are coming together.

"I am so happy that our teachers are recognizing the power of their collective voices and I believe that Hamilton County can be better when we have more of our citizens recognize their individual power and their role," Hill said. "I think that a lot of people don't realize that their voice matters. It does matter, and when people [who] have common concerns and common experiences work together, that's how people change the world together."

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, counters her colleagues, though - echoing Boyd's sentiments.

"Everybody needs to stay in their own lane, [the commission] give us the money and we spend it," she said. "If teachers are the most important people in the classroom than we, the school board, needs to put them at the top of the list. Going back to the commission and asking for more money is not the answer."

District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin also acknowledged the invitation during Wednesday's commission meeting and said he had a potential scheduling conflict on Nov. 17, but would try to make it.

McClendon, Hill and board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, mentioned possible schedule conflicts but all said they were in favor of the conversations, both with teachers and their colleagues on the commission.

The mayor mentioned school facilities as one of the issues that may come up during the Dec. 9 meeting, but said there will not be discussion on further taxes or "anything other than what we're trying to do."

The two bodies last met together to talk about the district's preliminary facilities report on July 23. Last January, months before Johnson unveiled his budget, commissioners met in the school district's board room for a preliminary budget talk and a review of the district's strategic plan.

At the time, members of both bodies touted the meeting as a sign of an improved working relationship between the school board and its governing body.

Both panels are scheduled to meet with the county's legislative delegation for their annual breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the county's McDaniel Building, 455 N. Highland Park Ave.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416, staylor@timesfreepress.com or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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