Opinion: Fain, Walker and Coe endorsed for Hamilton County Board of Education seats

Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / Newly appointed Hamilton County Board of Education member James Walker questions an administration staff member during a school board meeting last August.

In an era where parents are demanding to have more of a say in what their child is reading and being taught in public schools, the makeup of a school board is critical.

Among the Hamilton County Board of Education goals, after all, according to the district website, are these:

- Improve academic performance of all students through implementation of a system of high standards and accountability in all classrooms. (Emphasis ours.)

- Enhance and strengthen the programs that promote good citizenship, teach character education and value diversity.

- Develop a parent involvement program in every school (Emphasis ours.)

- Implement a comprehensive plan that provides clear and open lines of communication among central office employees, school staffs, parents and the community. (Emphasis ours.)

Seven school board seats are up for grabs this year, including the two in the new districts created last year in redistricting following the 2020 census. And for the first time, per a new state law, they are being contested on a primary, rather than nonpartisan, basis.

Races in Districts 3 (where Joe Smith is the incumbent), District 5 (Karitsa Jones) and the new District 11 (where there is no incumbent) have only one Republican and one Democratic contender, so they will be decided in the August county general election.

Members in District 1 (Rhonda Thurman), 2 (Marco Perez), 4 (Tiffanie Robinson) and 7 (Joe Wingate) are not up for election this year.

In the remaining districts, the Chattanooga Free Press opinion page recommends:

In District 6, Cindy Fain

Cindy Fain, a small business owner with a first-grader in Hamilton County Schools, is our pick in the Republican primary. She says parents have a role in their children's education by reading to them until they can read back to the parents and by staying involved in the schools.

"We should not put [all the responsibility] on the pre-k or kindergarten teacher," she said.

A year ago, before Fain got in the race, she already was distressed that her daughter in kindergarten was being taught victimology and that gender identity was being discussed on the playground.

"Kids should be kids," she said. At that age, "they should have no worries or more peer pressure."

Fain also is concerned local schools are using a reading program that is "not fun" and "has backfired in making the children not want to read."

She feels school administration should be cut back and the money saved should go for teacher raises, teaching assistants and the deferred maintenance backlog.

Both of her opponents, Delores Gross Vinson and Jon Baker, are bright, well-meaning and concerned citizens who have some thoughts similar to Fain's. Vinson, a former public and private school teacher and a substitute in local schools since her retirement, says her experience gives her the edge. Baker, a 2010 transplant from Florida, calls himself a "doer," an "organizer" and as a retiree has "a lot of free time" to devote to the schools.

We prefer Fain for the seat that board member Jenny Hill is giving up.

In District 8, Grohn In August

Former Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn is unopposed in the Republican primary for the seat Tucker McClendon is vacating to run for Hamilton County Commission. One of two Democrats, Katie Perkins or Sandy Norris Smith, will oppose him.

Smith does not appear to be doing much campaigning, while Perkins went to Hamilton County Schools and has three children there now. But the answers she gave to the Times Free Press editorial board were vague and didn't appear to be thought through as well as we would have hoped.

We make no recommendation among the two Democrats and hope Grohn can provide more cogent answers as the Republican choice.

In District 9, James Walker

With longtime board taxpayer advocate Rhonda Thurman saying she's retiring in 2024, we see James Walker - appointed to the board in 2021 - as the best shot to replace her as someone who would question board policies, point out common-sense problems and not be an administration rubber stamp.

He says the current board is more ineffective "than any board I've ever been involved" with. "I don't know what we've done."

Walker believes the "system's broken." He says we "coddle everybody" and are "afraid to discipline," adding, "I understand the importance of loving them, but we can't save them all."

Yet, he says, local public schools offer "way more great stuff than negative."

Facing him in the Republican primary are former district teacher and administrator Gary Kuehn, who was passed over by the school board for Walker last year, and Tate Smith, whose wife is a district special needs teacher.

Kuehn, now retired, said he "has the time to give," with his "granddaughters as investment," and boasts "a track record of working with parents, teachers and students." Smith said he would offer "fresh ideas," be more of a collaborator than Walker and would like to take a hard look at how bullying is handled in the district.

Though we don't agree with all he espouses, we recommend Walker as a representative voice for his district.

In District 10, Roddey Coe

We offer Roddey Coe a narrow endorsement in the Republican primary race over Faye Robinson. Coe offers a conservative political philosophy, longtime disabilities advocacy and an information technology background, the latter two areas being ones the board doesn't have. Robinson is a dedicated party leader and known to be a hard worker who would roll up her sleeves to try to get to the bottom of issues.

Coe said he as a board member "is not going to agree on everything," but said it is "important that we partner." While he believes teachers need more training in educating students with disabilities, he is not sold on a slew of support positions and thinks the priority should be on teachers.

He likes the district's increasing focus on vocational education but would like to see resources reallocated to allow students transportation to vocational sites. It is important, he said, students be taught to think critically so they can excel in their lives.

Coe also cites his previous work with state legislative delegation members, principals and teachers.

Robinson is concerned not enough students are reading on grade level and has thoughts about some monitored after-school sessions for such students with teachers or volunteers. The third candidate in the race, small business owner Patrick Lee, has custodial children in local public schools and, during the pandemic, "saw so many things wrong with [students] catching up online." He advocates a "back to basics" education.