The candidates vying for the District 3 seat on the Hamilton County school board expressed differing views this week about the education system investing in new buildings and whether topics like sex and sexuality should be taught in school.
Incumbent Republican Joe Smith of Hixson faced off against Democrat Jenn Piroth of Hixson Wednesday night in the fourth of a debate series sponsored by Chattanooga 2.0, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News.
Between the two, the winner in the Aug. 4 general election will represent the DuPont, Lakesite, Pleasant Grove, Middle Valley, Valley Brook, Hixson and Northgate areas. The district includes Big Ridge Elementary, DuPont Elementary, Hixson Elementary, Hixson High, Hixson Middle, Loftis Middle, McConnell Elementary and Middle Valley Elementary.
Here's what the candidates had to say about matters covered during the debate:
Under Tennessee's new education funding formula, known as the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, Hamilton County schools are projected to receive $397 million in fiscal year 2024, $47 million more than the district will receive this academic year, according to the state Department of Education. The way funds are distributed will be decided by local school boards.
Piroth, a sign language interpreter, said as a school board member she would work to allocate more funding to students with disabilities, like those who are deaf.
"(Deaf) kids would need more funding than kids who can hear in general," Piroth said. "There is a big difference between equity and fairness. Fairness is when we give everyone the same thing. Every kid gets a lollipop. And equity is when every kid gets what they need."
Smith, who has served on the board for six years under the outgoing funding model, said the new formula will help close existing equity gaps.
"It's more of a student-based funding," Smith said. "So, the dollars are going to be placed in the areas where there's the biggest need, and that needs to happen."
The Times Free Press previously reported that certain kinds of bullying, namely racial bullying, have increased at Hamilton County Schools.
Smith said in order for the district to address bullying, all teachers and administrators need to be following the code of conduct, but they aren't.
"The interesting thing (is) about two years ago, we came up with a code of conduct that everybody was trained to follow," Smith said. "Every time (bullying) comes up, I'm always saying the problem is we're not following our code of conduct. ... And this is one of the things that I want to get done in this next term."
Piroth emphasized a need to teach children about how to talk about their feelings.
"I think we need to focus on maybe getting some more mental health professionals," Piroth said. "I also want to see us focusing on citizenship awards more than things like perfect attendance."
Following a mass shooting at an elementary school 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 OK'd an additional $1 million in funding to support the effort.
Smith said the district has made an effort over the past few years to harden school entrances and that he's pleased with the new effort to hire more security officers.
"Every parent, in my case every grandparent, wants to make sure their children are safe when they go to school," Smith said.
Piroth said hiring security officers was not sufficient to keep students safe.
"There were a bunch of police officers outside the Ulvade elementary school who didn't go in and help anybody for over an hour," Piroth said. "So, that does not necessarily guarantee safety in any way. I want to make sure that our students and teachers that are learning out of portables are able to quickly get out of portables and into a secure building."
Hamilton County Schools face nearly $1 billion in deferred building repairs, and the new board will have to make some tough decisions going forward.
The candidates clashed over whether the district should invest dollars in a new vocational school downtown or address existing structural issues.
"Not every child wants to go to college or chooses to go to college, and now there's, in a lot of those technical fields, young people can make a very, very good wage," Smith said. "So that's just something that we're going to have to dissect and see what we put first. I'm hoping that the community will get interested in this and join hands with us to help us."
Piroth was strongly opposed.
"I absolutely cannot disagree more," she said. "That is a complete waste of taxpayer funds. I am entirely against it. I can't believe we're even talking about it when (we have almost) a billion dollars of repairs that we need to do for the rest of our kids. Terrible idea."
SEXUALITY AND GENDER
The candidates differed in their opinions on what should be taught to children about sexuality and gender in school.
"Just like any topic, I think that every single topic that we teach to children should be age-appropriate," Piroth said. "I think that comprehensive education about what all of our body parts are, it's been shown in research that it keeps children safe being able to name all their different body parts."
Piroth added that she thought parents should be a child's main source of information when it comes to topics like sex.
Smith said school is meant for academics, not sexuality.
"In public education, in schools, we need to be teaching math and science, those kinds of things," Smith said. "Things about sexuality ought to be done by the parent. I'm not so sure that those things should be taught in school."
PARENTS AND BOOKS
In Tennessee, there's been a push for parents to have more say in what their students read and learn in school. Both candidates said parents should have a role in choosing what their children are exposed to.
"It is important to understand that (the Board of Education doesn't) have a lot of say in curriculum," Smith said. "The state may give us two or three choices, and then we have to pick from those choices they give us, and that's in terms of curriculum."
Smith went on to say, in his time on the board, the pandemic caused a lot of parents to pay more attention to what their children were reading and learning.
"Candidly, I'm glad parents are more involved in what their kids are seeing and reading," he said.
Piroth supported a parent's right to choose what their children may or may not read, but they don't have a right to choose what other children read.
"I believe in liberty and for me, liberty means that nobody else gets to decide what my child reads," Piroth said. "And I don't get to decide what other people's children read. We believe in freedom in America. So, for that reason, I think it's the parents' job to be on top of what they are uncomfortable with their child reading and to opt their child out of it. And beyond that, I trust educators and experts and especially librarians to make choices about what my child reads."
The candidates weighed in on how they might help students prepare for college and earn college credit while in high school.
Smith said the district has ample opportunities for students and he hopes to continue expanding those efforts.
"We've done a pretty good job of offering students the option to dual enroll," Smith said. "We need to continue to expand those opportunities and make sure that every child that's interested has the ability to access those opportunities."
Piroth said the district needs to better support career counselors.
"Our school counselors are overburdened with having to work on scheduling changes, work on helping to proctor standardized testing," Piroth said. "They don't have the time that they need. And also, frankly, I don't believe there are enough of them to really focus on helping kids do career counseling."
Moderators gave candidates the chance to ask one another a question.
Piroth asked Smith about a Facebook status he'd posted stating that he was "particularly happy" about the budget passed by the school board that included a 3% raise for teachers. Piroth said inflation reached 8% this past year, and due to this, teachers were actually taking a 5% pay cut.
"They didn't get a 5% pay cut," Smith responded. "All of us are suffering right now through inflation. And so they didn't get a 5% pay cut, they got a 3% pay raise."
Smith added that he had voted to wait to pass the budget until state allocations had been finalized to bump the originally proposed 1% raise to 3%.
Smith asked Piroth how she would manage her time being a working mom of four children and also serve on the school board.
"My job that I have now is very flexible," Piroth said. "I can choose to work or not work on certain days, and so I would be able to meet with teachers when it was convenient for them to meet. I'm also, of course, free in the evenings. My partner, James, is very supportive and wonderful with our kids. So, I don't have concerns about that. This is important enough to me that I would absolutely make the time for that."