School safety and infrastructure were among the top concerns of the two candidates vying for the District 8 seat on the Hamilton County school board during Tuesday night's debate.
Republican and former Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn, now of East Ridge, faced off against Democrat Katie Perkins of Chattanooga in the first of a debate series sponsored by Chattanooga 2.0, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News.
The District 8 candidate who wins the August general election will represent the Brainerd Hills, Concord and East Ridge area, which includes East Ridge elementary, middle and high schools, as well as Spring Creek Elementary.
Other issues discussed in the debate included educational equity, bullying and literacy rates. Here's what the candidates had to say.
(READ MORE: Hamilton County school board candidates disagree on books but not much else in District 10)
Following events in Uvalde, Texas, and recent shootings in Chattanooga, how best to keep students safe at school has been a subject of debate. Recently, Hamilton County Schools announced an investment of $950,000 to hire and put security officers in every school. The County Commission also OK'd an additional $1 million in funding to support the effort.
Grohn said the district has invested in making schools safe on the outside but questioned what the district is doing to make schools safe on the inside.
"Do we have a proper learning environment for our students?" Grohn asked. "We have a huge discipline problem within our schools."
Perkins said a focus on infrastructure will help secure schools.
"Right now we have the infrastructure that's decaying," Perkins said. "We have bullying, we have COVID and we have shootings. So, all of those things encompass school safety."
The Times Free Press previously reported that certain kinds of bullying, namely racial bullying, have increased at Hamilton County Schools.
"We need to go back to the beginning and start from the root and teach kindness and make sure that our youngest learners are feeling safe in school and that their needs are being met intellectually, emotionally, physically," Perkins said. She added the district should develop a discipline plan and communicate that plan to all levels of staff.
Grohn said the district already has a plan, but it isn't being followed.
"The problem that our school district is experiencing now is that the administrators are not following our district code of behavior," Grohn said.
He said it's not being enforced due to restorative justice, which focuses on rehabilitation and reconciliation more than punishment.
"The school district is trying to address this issue with social-emotional learning. But if you have an unsafe environment, then social-emotional learning cannot work," he said.
Retaining quality teachers
Across the country, teachers are leaving the profession en masse, commonly referred to as the "teacher exodus," and districts across the nation are looking at ways to retain and attract new teachers. One of those tactics is raising pay. Hamilton County teachers will see a 3% raise this year, but both candidates said pay isn't the only solution.
"Teachers are overwhelmed," Perkins said. "They do too much. They're the nurse, they are the psychologist and, in some cases, they are the parent. So, retaining the teachers, it's not necessarily about money, because there are so many other outside factors right now with criticisms from society and judgment from social media that we didn't have in the past."
Grohn agreed with Perkins that teachers are doing too much but added schools aren't the place for social justice.
"The biggest issues among teachers are the lack of administrative support, the lack of respect and discipline in the schools," Grohn said. "And just as my opponent referred to, schools have been tasked with things that the mission of schools has never been about. The mission of schools is education. It's not about trying to be a social change instrument or it's not about solving all the problems of modern-day society that can only be solved by individual families in their individual homes."
Hamilton County Schools face nearly $1 billion in deferred building repairs, and the new board will have to make some tough decisions going forward.
"I think the district needs to do more in terms of the capital budget, and even the general budget and putting more money into maintenance for the schools," Grohn said.
Perkins said a good place to start fixing the problem is clean air and water.
"Recently, I got an email about the water in my son's school having too much lead in it, which no parent should ever have an email like that," Perkins said. "You can't send our children to school with the roofs crumbling on their heads and without clean water to drink or clean air to breathe. So how do we fix these issues? We fix the water issues by filtering the water."
Hamilton County Schools had a committee that recently reviewed processes for selecting and objecting to reading materials. Some parents have complained about the content of books that contain themes of LGBTQ issues, sex or race.
Grohn said Hamilton County school librarians aren't equipped to make decisions on reading materials.
"I think that school librarians are at a totally different standard than public librarians," Grohn said. "This is (kindergarten through eighth grade), that environment is not a place to be talking about gender and sex."
Grohn said he has a copy of the book "It's Perfectly Normal," a children's book on sexual health written by Robie Harris that teaches children about puberty through different definitions of sex.
"It's pornographic," Grohn said.
Perkins said she apologizes to school librarians who heard Grohn's comment.
"I think we need to trust our librarians and our teachers who are taught to put the appropriate materials on the shelves," Perkins said.
Decline in college-going rates
The college-going rate of Hamilton County Schools seniors fell more than 11% in the past five years, following statewide trends, with Tennessee's college-going rate falling from 63.8% in 2017 to 52.8% last year. Students of color have lower college-going rates than white students: Latinos had the fewest college enrollees, with 35% going to college in 2021. For Black students, 44% enrolled. White high school graduates had the highest enrollment, with 57.6%.
Grohn said he believed college isn't for everyone. In a questionnaire released by Chattanooga 2.0 prior to the debates, Grohn said the goal of sending all students of color to college is impractical.
"I do not believe college is the place for all students," Grohn said. "Having a goal for all (students of color), or any colored student, to attend college is unproductive and unrealistic. The nation has already achieved these types of goals. The number of women of all colors attending college and graduating has been higher than men for years."
He later wrote he believed all Hamilton County students are students of color.
"Separating people into specific groups based solely on race has been wrong throughout our national history," Grohn said in his responses. "Realizing that individuals from socioeconomic groups have their own unique problems is helpful, but we should not be basing educational goals on the color of a person's skin."
Debate moderators asked him about the comments and he replied that Hamilton County's Future-Ready Institutes can help increase graduation rates for all students.
Perkins said the school board has a duty to ensure all students have equal opportunities.
"The school board needs to make sure that all opportunities are available to all students, no matter their background, or their socioeconomic background or anything else," Perkins said. "So, yes, not all students want to go to college. So there are these future-ready programs. But as far as the opportunity gap goes, we need to acknowledge that it exists."
Racial disparities in literacy rates
Overall, only 36.2% of Hamilton County third graders are proficient in reading and further disparities exist between white students and students of color. Black students have the lowest literacy proficiency rates in Hamilton County, 17.2%. They're followed by Latino students with a 21.2% proficiency rate.
Both candidates agreed that increasing literacy is a priority.
"When we're talking about improving literacy, we have the preschool programs that are available through Hamilton County Schools that are very important," Perkins said. "We need to make sure that the children are, the students are, learning to comprehend as well as to decode words."
Grohn said the solution won't be found by addressing racial disparities but by improving the curriculum.
"I think our curriculum needs total review," Grohn said. "It's not working, it's just not working. And we have to address that issue. And equity is not an issue in this case."
Candidates were given a chance to ask one another a question.
Grohn asked Perkins who she was and where she stood on important issues.
"The vast majority of, I would say, our constituents in District 8 don't know where you stand on important issues. Who are you?" Grohn asked.
"I don't think that's very fair to generalize what everybody in District 8 thinks about me," Perkins said. "I am Katie Perkins, and I am a mom. And my intentions for running for school board is to make schools better and safer for my children and for all the children of this community."
Perkins asked Grohn if he supported the district's educational equality policy that states all students should have the opportunity to receive an excellent public education regardless of the community in which they live.
Grohn said the policy is important but the issue is multifaceted.
"Do I believe that our school district needs an Office of Equity? No, I do not," Grohn said. "I think that is an unconscionable growth of the central office administration."
He added that the number of employees in the Office of Equity should be reduced.
Contact Carmen Nesbitt at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.