Harrison area group petitions for charter school to combat "Marxist indoctrination"

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A fisherman and his companion sail along Harrison Bay on Oct. 20. Some area residents are proposing a new Harrison Bay Charter School.

Friends of Hamilton, a group that unsuccessfully sought to incorporate a new city in northeast Hamilton County in 2012, has launched a petition for a new elementary charter school in the Harrison and Birchwood area.

As of Tuesday, the Change.Org petition has more than 70 signatures and says a new school is needed to combat Marxist indoctrination by the Hamilton County Department of Education.

"Parents have had enough and are now working to start NEW charter schools or are moving their kids to home/private school at the same time looking to cut-off/claw back their tax dollars from the FAILING HCDE public schools systems," the petition states. "It's not about education, it's about MARXIST INDOCTRINATION."

In the petition, the group said it plans to partner with the conservative Michigan-based Hillsdale College to develop programming. At the request of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Hillsdale was set to create a network of K-12 public charter schools across the state but withdrew several applications after Hillsdale President Larry Arnn made insulting comments about teachers and teacher-training programs, spurring public backlash.

But Hillsdale officials said they hadn't heard of Friends of Hamilton until the Chattanooga Times Free Press reached out to confirm the partnership mentioned in the petition.

"We were unaware until your inquiry that a group called Friends of Hamilton aspires to work with Hillsdale College's K-12 office on the establishment of a charter school in Tennessee," Hillsdale spokesman Bill Zeiser said in an email. "Hillsdale has neither met with, nor been contacted by Friends of Hamilton, and we are unfamiliar with their work. Should they complete an application to establish a Hillsdale-member charter school, we look forward to reviewing it."

The Times Free Press contacted Friends of Hamilton for an interview, but the request was declined via email. The email said more information would be available to the media at a later time.

Friends of Hamilton in 2021 submitted an open records request to Hamilton County Schools asking for the personal information of 45,000 families. The information included parent names, street addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, grade level of children and school of enrollment. The group said it wanted to "help foster closer communications among parents while increasing transparency in the classroom."

The request was later rescinded due to widespread criticism after school officials informed parents about the impending release of the information.

The petition to form Harrison Bay Charter School makes several claims about Hamilton County Schools that district officials said are false, including the allegation of Marxist indoctrination.

"Our only agenda is to achieve our just cause of seeing every student thrive and experience a future without limits," district spokesman Steve Doremus said by email.

The charter proponents also claim the district's new staffing model -- which will invest an additional $25 million to hire wellness support staff -- will be funded by a tax increase.

Doremus said this isn't true.

"The district's new staffing model, which has been shared throughout the community, is designed to provide needed supports for students to remove barriers to their academic achievement and well-being," Doremus said in an email. "We have repeatedly made it clear that the new student-facing positions being added to our schools will be funded through savings in our existing budget and new dollars provided by the state's new ... funding formula. They are not dependent on a local tax increase."

The petition also claims the district is reclassifying "juvenile delinquents" as special needs students.

"One of their dirty little tricks is to reclassify juvenile delinquents as special needs to push them into other areas while hurting the real special needs kids in the process," the petition states. "Another fraud they do is reclassifying ILLEGAL's as homeless with no immunization record, residency, etc to hide them in the school system. This equates to embezzlement and theft of tax dollars."

Doremus said the district follows the law when classifying students.

Though the petition claims teams are being established to launch the school in fall 2023, district officials said Friends of Hamilton has not submitted a charter school application. Under Tennessee law, applications are due before Dec. 1. If approved by the Board of Education, the following school year is a planning year, and the charter can open with students in the second year.

"We have had no new charter school applications for this cycle," Doremus said. "Thus, any new potential charters have missed this year's deadlines to even have a planning year in 2023-24."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.