Hamilton County school board member faces backlash for saying developer is buying buildings and 'holding them hostage'

Rhonda Thurman accused Bassam Issa of using funds 'from outside our country,' something he denies

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman during a work session before the school board meeting in the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, July 18, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A discussion about Hamilton County Schools potentially purchasing the former Sears and J.C. Penney stores at Northgate Mall at a Monday board meeting has drawn criticism for one school board member.

Some Hamilton County residents are calling board member Rhonda Thurman of District 1 out for what they call a racist and offensive comment about local developer and Islamic leader, Bassam Issa.

While board members debated the $8.9 million price tag for the properties, several expressed frustrations with a perceived price increase since Issa and his partner, John J. Woods, purchased the Sears property after the district expressed interest in it in April.

Thurman agreed with fellow board members Steve Highlander and Jenny Hill's concerns about "the economic times" and argued that there are likely to be more properties available as businesses close as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.