Effort to promote equity through student transportation prompts discussion at Hamilton County school board

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / This was the first meeting of the new Hamilton County school board with 11 members, although member Joe Wingate was absent. The meeting took place in 2022 at the Hamilton County Schools central office meeting room on the Hickory Valley Road campus.

Note: This story was updated Nov. 10 to correct details of the vote.

Hamilton County Schools will look into how its transportation system can support equitable access to educational opportunities after receiving a federal grant.

The district intends to use the roughly $250,000 grant to better understand how, with its school choice program, transportation is serving students and whether it can be made more efficient. It's targeted toward the 25 county schools with poverty levels of 75% or higher.

At Thursday's Board of Education meeting, School Board Member Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson, raised concerns that the plan created through the grant would end up costing the district millions of dollars. She added that families who want to send their children to schools out-of-zone should provide their own transportation.

"Things like this will bankrupt a school system," she said.

The school board voted 8-1 to accept the grant. Thurman voted against accepting the funds, and School Board Member Larry Grohn, R-East Ridge, was absent, as was Tiffanie Robinson, independent from Chattanooga. 

Thurman was also the lone vote against establishing the new job position tied to the grant that will oversee the project.

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"Socioeconomic diversity is something that affects this entire county," Superintendent Justin Robertson said. "From the very back of Signal Mountain through downtown to, you know, God's country is Sale Creek, we've got poor kids across this county, and we should be digging into this. There's nothing that requires us to do anything at the end of it, but it could get to the point where we say we haven't been doing this right to serve our kids well all along."

One of the goals of school choice is to help students living in poverty access educational opportunities, Robertson said. While there's no requirements attached to the two-year grant, the superintendent hopes it will prompt changes that better serve students and save money, he said.

"When we start a program like this, they're going to find things that we're doing wrong, and we're going to have to fix it," Thurman said. "Then that fix will bring on another fix, and it just never ends. And we're getting in the transportation business instead of the education business because it's sucking millions of dollars out of our funds."

The grant is through the U.S. Department of Education's fostering diverse schools demonstration program, an initiative to help school districts and state education agencies improve student learning by supporting voluntary efforts to increase school socioeconomic diversity. Hamilton County Schools was one of 14 programs from across the nation to be awarded the grant last month.

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"No one's ever gone wrong getting more information about a subject and finding out all the facts," School Board Member Ben Connor, D-Chattanooga, said. "At the end of the day, having more information has never been worse than having less."

School Board Member Gary Kuehn, R-Ooltewah spoke about his time as the principal of the former Hamilton County Adult High School, now known as the Harrison Bay Future Ready Center, where students had to provide their own transportation.

"I don't know how many (students) we lost because we did not provide buses for that, and I would hate for this same thing to happen," he said. "If there's a way to provide transportation and allow students to be successful, then we need to check on it."

Contact Shannon Coan at scoan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.