Hamilton County school board candidates disagree on books but not much else in District 10

Faye Robinson, Christine Essex and Jeff Crim are running for school board. This image is a composite of screen grabs from their appearance in Wednesday night's debate.

The three candidates vying for the District 10 seat on the Hamilton County school board agreed on most issues during a debate Wednesday night with the exception of one sticky topic: Who controls what students read?

Independent Christine Essex of Ooltewah, Republican Faye Robinson of Ooltewah and Democrat Jeff Crim of Chattanooga faced off in the second of a debate series sponsored by Chattanooga 2.0, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News.

The candidate who wins the Aug. 4 general election will represent Apison, Ooltewah, Silverdale, Collegedale, Summit, Ooltewah, Georgetown and Savannah Bay, including the following schools: Ooltewah Elementary, Ooltewah High, Ooltewah Middle and Wolftever Creek Elementary.

Here's what the candidates had to say about matters covered during the debate:

Partisan campaigns

This year marks the first in Tennessee in which school board candidates are running on partisan tickets, fueling concern that politics will overshadow the educational needs of students in an already divided country. But all three candidates said partisan politics will not influence how they conduct themselves as a board member.

Essex said she's running as an independent but is really a Christian conservative Republican. She said after she filed her paperwork to run as a Republican with the Hamilton County Election Commission, the Hamilton County GOP called her and told her she could not run on a Republican ticket due to certain bylaws, which she did not specify.

Still, she said, it won't change how she would approach her school board duties.

Crim concurred.

"I'm conservative, but I will vote according to my constituents," Robinson said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school board candidates clash over equity, books in District 8)

School bullying

The Times Free Press previously reported that certain kinds of bullying, namely racial bullying, have increased at Hamilton County Schools.

"Nobody wakes up and says 'I want to become a bully today,'" Crim said. "Bullying happens because students' pain and trauma is coming out sideways, and they take it out on their peers."

Crim suggested a possible solution is a focus on social-emotional learning, but it has been vilified in recent months.

"Why would we eliminate from our curriculum something that teaches students how to deal with feelings, how to deal with trauma, how to deal with pain?" Crim said.

Essex said the issue of bullying hits home for her, as her daughter was bullied and assaulted by other students. She said she filed a petition with the school board in hopes of changing the bullying policy.

"I think there needs to be punishment," Essex said. "I believe that the bullies need to be held accountable for their actions."

Robinson said everyone - teachers, parents and principals - must be part of the solution and follow the same procedure when bullying does occur.

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, according to the debate moderators. One of those tactics is raising pay. Hamilton County teachers will see a 3% raise this year.

But besides pay, Essex and Robinson agreed that teachers are leaving because children aren't disciplined.

"I actually am friends with a few teachers who have resigned, and it's not really the pay that they're concerned about, it's the behavior of the children," Essex said.

Robinson said the behavior problem was serious, and teachers themselves are being bullied.

Crim said he believed teachers are leaving because they aren't respected as professionals

"The very first thing that we need to do as school board members is to respect the teachers as highly-trained professionals," Crim said.

Infrastructure

Hamilton County Schools face nearly $1 billion in deferred building repairs, and the new board will have to make some tough decisions going forward.

Robinson said infrastructure is a matter of safety.

"You just have to evaluate your greatest need for the safety of the children and put your resources there," Robinson said. "You cannot allow students or teachers to walk in a school that is unsafe."

Essex agreed with Robinson, saying that buildings must be fixed to ensure the safety of students and teachers.

Crim said that his experience working in nonprofit organizations has trained him to use scarce resources, in this case money for capital improvements, effectively.

"We're going to have to listen to building engineers and those sorts of people, but then the school board is going to have to prioritize putting financial and human resources into deferred maintenance," Crim said.

Book bans

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.

Crim said he trusts in the discretion of teachers and librarians to select age-appropriate materials.

"We require teachers to go to a lot of school to become professional educators," Crim said. "And while I would be the first to say that parents should have a voice in education, I do think, more often than not, we need to back off and let the teachers and the administrators (be the professionals) that we have demanded that they go to school to become."

Robinson disagreed.

"I certainly believe parents have a voice in what their children see in the library. Movies are rated for age-appropriate, why wouldn't books be rated age appropriate?" Robinson said.

Essex said she believes certain books shouldn't be in schools.

"I think it's parents' right to decide whether or not these books should be in our schools," Essex said.

Crim asked Essex to name what books she thought shouldn't be in schools that currently are. She said she did not know specific titles.

Hillsdale controversy

Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and one of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's advisers, was caught on video making remarks about teachers while the governor stood by silently. Specifically, Arnn said teachers are "trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges." Lee refused to denounce the statements publicly, inciting strong criticism from educators across Tennessee.

"I'd like to tell Gov. Lee that several of our state institutions are nationally known for our education training program," Crim said. "So, does that make some of our schools the dumbest colleges? I'd like to tell Gov. Lee that as a Tennessean, I am ashamed that he sat in the same room as someone who made statements like that and didn't rebut them," Crim said.

Robinson said that while she's a Republican, she's appalled by Arnn's statement.

"I would ask Gov. Lee why he has taken so long to be against the statement, to not stand up for the teachers," Robinson said.

Essex said she's sad and upset Lee hasn't spoken out against Arnn's remarks.

"Our teachers are feeling a lot of pressure right now," Essex said."I have talked to multiple, and they don't feel like that they're being appreciated."

School funding

As to whether the county should increase taxes to bump the district's operational budget, all three candidates agreed it wasn't necessary.

"My first thought is 'no' because I understand that Tennessee has reevaluated the formula for schools, the Tennessee Investment, and I think I certainly want to see how that will play out," Robinson said.

Crim said he wouldn't advocate for an increase in taxes.

"We raise funds by property tax and primarily by sales tax, and both of those are regressive taxes that unfairly penalize people who are at the bottom of the economy," Crim said. "I think one of our previous superintendents was on to something when he said we needed to look at the equity that we had locked into property. That's a place where we could find some operating money in the short term."

Essex also chimed in.

"I think that we need to find the money and offer different programs," Essex said.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.