'Good grief,' Hamilton County commissioner says of mailers saying he would 'open the door' for school shooters

A mailer paid for by the Tennessee Republican Party makes false claims about Democratic incumbent David Sharpe, who is seeking re-election to the Hamilton County Commission. / Contributed photo

The Tennessee Republican Party has sent out mailers attacking Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe with claims that he would "open the door" for school shooters and that he sought to weaken school safety by ending the school resource officer program for Hamilton County Schools.

Sharpe, a Democrat, is running for re-election to represent District 6, which includes Lupton City, North Shore, Red Bank, North Chattanooga, Riverview and Stuart Heights. His opponent on the Aug. 4 ballot is Republican Ruth Jeno, of Red Bank.

"School Shooters are Lurking," the top of the mailer states, followed by claims that school shootings, "every parent's worst nightmare," are happening "right here in Tennessee."

The mailer is misleading in that it uses part of a 2021 headline from the online news outlet The Chattanoogan and takes it out of context.

The Chattanoogan article is about a proposal by Sharpe to move school resource officer or SRO funding from the Sheriff's Office to the schools budget to expand the school security officer program or SSO program and get an officer assigned to every school.

"Sharpe Recommends That County Do Away With SRO Program," the mailer says, cutting off the end of the headline.

The full headline said, "Sharpe Recommends That County Do Away With SRO Program; Cover All 75 Schools With SSOs."

Sharpe told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a phone call that he was saddened by the attack.

"Good grief," he said. "I think it's really sad, frankly, that someone, anyone, would stoop to the level of this mail piece."

Sharpe said he believes the mailers were disinformation, false information intended to mislead, because a separate mailer was sent out containing the full headline published in the Chattanoogan.

"They knew good and well what they were doing. And because of that, it's even more disgusting," Sharpe said, adding that it is unacceptable to politicize school safety.

The chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, Scott Golden, told the Times Free Press in a phone call he would not discuss the GOP's campaign strategy.

The Times Free Press asked what the basis was for the claim that Sharpe would open the door for a school shooter.

Golden repeated that he would not discuss campaign strategy.

Sharpe proposed redirecting funds, approximately $3.2 million, that were already part of Hamilton County Schools' security budget, from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office back to the district - and adding another $1 million - so the district could hire enough school security officers to cover every school.

The difference between the classifications, student security coordinator Jim Corbin of Hamilton County Schools said in a previous interview with the Times Free Press, is that school resource officers are actively employed by law enforcement, while school security officers are usually, but not always, retired police officers employed by the district.

"The budget was for 40 school resource officers, but they only had 24, and half the time they weren't in schools," Sharpe said.

School security officers, like school resource officers, can carry a firearm, use lethal force and detain individuals. The only difference is that they cannot make arrests.

Starting in the fall, Hamilton County Schools will invest $950,000 to put school security officers in every school. Hamilton County Commissioners also OK'd an additional $1 million towards the effort.

The Hamilton County Republican Party PAC put out similar Facebook ads against Sharpe.

"David Sharpe is too weak for Hamilton County. Sharpe will raise taxes and remove SROs from schools," one ad said.

The Times Free Press was unable to reach County GOP Chairman Arch Trimble for comment.

In 2019, Sharpe supported a 34-cent property tax increase that would have increased Hamilton County Schools' 2020 budget by $34 million in property tax revenues. The proposal failed narrowly in a 5-4 vote.

Sharpe also in 2019 supported calling a voter referendum for a "wheel tax" on motor vehicles, motorcycles and motor-operated bikes and scooters in order to give teachers a 6.7% raise. The referendum proposal failed 5-3 and therefore did not go to voters.

The Times Freee Press was unable to reach Sharpe's opponent for comment, but Jeno condemned the mailers in a post on Facebook.

"I am deeply disappointed in the negative mailer District 6 residents are receiving against my opponent," Jeno said." I can assure everyone I nor anyone in my campaign had any knowledge or involvement in this or any other mailer against my opponent. From day one I have focused on running a positive campaign focused on the issues that matter to families and residents in District 6. I believe those who know me best understand this mailer does not represent who I am as a candidate, a community leader and person. My reputation is one of community service with honesty and integrity."

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