The two candidates vying for the District 6 seat on the Hamilton County Board of Education disagreed on most things in a debate this week, especially LGBTQ initiatives and the effectiveness of safety and security officers in schools.
Republican Jon Baker faced off against Democrat Ben Connor, both of Chattanooga, in the final 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 Lupton City, North Shore, Red Bank, North Chattanooga, Riverview and Stuart Heights neighborhoods. Schools in District 6 include Alpine Crest Elementary, Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts, Normal Park Museum Magnet, Normal Park Upper, Red Bank High, Red Bank Middle and Rivermont Elementary.
Here's what the candidates had to say about issues covered during the debate:
Moderators asked the candidates whether they support LGBTQ initiatives taking place in schools.
Connor said different clubs are allowed at different levels, and if a high school student wants to start a club that the principal approves of, he stands by them.
Baker said he audits classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and he attended a drag queen show there once.
"It was entertaining," Baker said. "However, it was also an opportunity for them to start recruiting," he said. "Kids want to belong, and if they are felt welcomed and part of a group or something like that, they may head down a road that is not ideal for them. This is not the Boy Scouts that we're talking about. This is much, much different. So, just take a look at the suicide rates among transgenders, and you're going to wish your kid picked a different road."
Connor spoke up for the importance of inclusion.
"When (children feel included), those suicide rates you mentioned, John, will go down very, very quickly," Connor said.
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 to support the effort.
Baker said that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office has struggled to fill school resource officer positions, and even though those positions now come with multi-year contracts and bonuses, "nobody wants to do it."
"The reality is that there's been almost 2,000 shootings since 1970. This is not new information, yet our school system has done nothing," Baker said. "Two years ago they had zero budgeted for school security. So tell me how they're suddenly going to turn on a dime and hire more than the 24 SROs they currently have to cover 79 buildings? It ain't gonna happen. We need to come up with a much different plan."
Connor said the district had actually secured funding.
"We now have received funding for the 26 additional officers that we need to cover every Hamilton County school," Connor said. "I applaud the superintendent, the school board and the county commissioners for making that happen, and I look forward to having a trained (school security officer) in every single Hamilton County School."
Baker said he believes that teachers and faculty should be authorized to carry concealed weapons on school property and that he doesn't see the value of security officers in an active shooter situation because, as he understands it, they aren't allowed to carry weapons.
"The idea that teachers should be defenseless is abhorrent to me," Baker said.
Connor said he's long been concerned with this issue and that Baker is incorrect. Security officers are required to carry firearms, he said.
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.
Connor said that it's important to make sure teachers are paid a "thriving wage" so that they don't need second jobs.
"The second part of it is a program that we already have in place," Connor said, referring to a program called Grow Your Own, "trying to find our own students who have an interest in education already, and growing that, cultivating that and funding them to help them get that degree and get back to Hamilton County teaching in our back yard."
Baker aruged that teacher burnout is a far bigger problem.
"Based on the info from the previous debates and my own conversations, the pay didn't make the top two or three issues. It was burnout," Baker said. "My proposal is that we reduce class sizes to a maximum of 15 students. Let the teacher teach, get rid of the standardized testing that is taking 25% of their time."
Overall, 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.
Baker said he thinks that student behavior is largely to blame when it comes to racial disparities in literacy rates.
"If somebody's acting up or acting out, that disrupts the learning of the rest of the people in that class," he said. "You improve behavior, you're going to improve scores."
Connor said students in low-performing areas would learn better if their teachers were recruited and retained from their own communities.
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.
Connor said his own politics would never influence the way he serves Hamilton County students, but Baker said he would bring his conservative values to the table.
"It means Christian values," Baker said. "It means understanding that where we are today is not where we are supposed to be. The Democrat party is a party of abortion. It's a party of grooming. It is a party that starts at the local level to affect their power. I am here to let you know, as a Republican, as a Christian, as a conservative, I will oppose all of that."
Connor said children should never be politicized and that he was "amazed" some people don't care about children enough to put politics aside.
"It's about the children, not about anything else," Connor said. "I registered as a Democrat because I am one, but I do not need any national taglines or buzzwords or anything else to tell me how I need to listen, educate myself and make the right choices for the children and the community of Hamilton County. At the end of the day, that is what I'm going to do."
The Times Free Press previously reported that certain kinds of bullying, namely racial bullying, have increased at Hamilton County Schools.
"Our children deserve to learn in a safe environment," Connor said. "Our teachers deserve to teach in a safe environment, period. That's why I support any type of mental health that we can give to the children and the educators. Any type of support staff that we can have."
Baker agreed teachers need more support and said he believes bullying incidents aren't being reported accurately.
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.
Baker said the books students read should align with community ideals and morals.
"Our schools are supposed to represent our community values, and when I attended the committee meetings on the book issue, I was amazed at the idea that kids should be encouraged to see and be exposed to all sorts of things that were way above their pay grade," Baker said.
He later clarified that what he meant by "above their pay grade" was "carnal knowledge of things that at their age they're not ready to process."
"We are civilians surrounded by highly educated professionals," he said. "It is our job to get their ideas to match our ideals."
Connor said, using the words of Baker, that he encourages his daughters to read above their pay grade.
"I think that I trust the educators to put the right books in the hands of our students at the right age range," Connor said.
In his closing statements, Baker said he would invest his own money to implement a whistleblower program.
"One of the things that I want to do when I get on the school board is to initiate a whistleblower program," Baker said. "I will take $500 out of my own pocket and offer that for information of bullying, violations of state and county laws and teaching or implementing unapproved courses or textbooks."