A Hamilton County school board member is defending her comments about a building deal involving the Northgate Mall after criticism from educators and faith leaders that her remarks were xenophobic, Islamophobic or both.
The board member, Rhonda Thurman, did not respond to requests for comment from the Times Free Press for a story about the controversy earlier this week. After it published, she criticized the story on a website called The Chattanoogan.
Her opinion piece called the Times Free Press story "fake news," even though it was based on comments she made at a videotaped meeting and people's reactions to them.
"My comments at Monday's school board agenda meeting did not make one reference to anyone's race or religion," Thurman wrote.
"I have a problem with somebody just going around and buying up a lot of buildings, just because they can get funding from other sources from outside our country, and then holding them hostage so people like us can come and they can double price them," Thurman said during the meeting.
Issa told the Times Free Press there is no foreign money involved, and Thurman's phrasing struck several educators and faith leaders interviewed by the Times Free Press as racist.
In The Chattanoogan, Thurman said that's not the case.
"To this day, I do not know what country Mr. Issa is from, nor do I care," she said. "Also, I do not know for a fact Mr. Issa is a Muslim. I never asked, nor do I care."
She said her comment about a real estate investor "holding us hostage" had nothing to do with Issa's heritage, but was a reaction to the real estate investors buying the building at a lower price than the one they were offering to charge to the school district.
"The first time I heard the $6.5 million price tag for the Sears building, was at the agenda meeting on Monday night," Thurman wrote. "My mind was racing. I was trying to recall what the original cost of the building was when the board first discussed the purchase. I thought it was around $3.5 to $4 million. I was also thinking about the fact of, what was to keep someone from buying every property the board was interested in and then trying to sell it to us at a nice profit? Thus, my comment 'holding us hostage.' Not just Mr. Issa, but anyone.
"I never mentioned Mr. Issa. Like I said, I do not even know what country Mr. Issa is from because it is irrelevant. There are a lot of investors with real deep pockets from different countries buying up real estate in America. I was thinking out loud wondering how the school system could negotiate this minefield of purchasing property without signaling to the world our intentions and still not run afoul of the Sunshine Law. I am trying to do the right thing by getting the best deal for the taxpayers of Hamilton County while at the same time being transparent.
"The bottom line is this. I did not say one racist word. I did not say one thing about Mr. Issa and his religion. I do not care ...
"This racist, Islamophobic narrative is fake news. It never happened."
Although there were teachers and faith leaders quoted in the Times Free Press using those words in reaction to Thurman's comments, the newspaper did not use those terms. The headline and story simply quoted Thurman's actual words and said they were drawing criticism.
Thurman's column accused the Times Free Press of fabricating the controversy, which was not the case. Thurman was being criticized on social media, and the newspaper decided to offer context on the issue and an opportunity for those involved - including Thurman - to explain their perspective.
The real estate deal was on the board's agenda for Thursday, but action was delayed.
Contact Ricky Young at email@example.com.