Republican candidates for District 7 Hamilton County school board seat talk teacher pay, social-emotional learning

The two candidates vying for the Republican nomination for the District 7 seat on the Hamilton County Board of Education expressed differing views in a debate this week about the district's school choice program and whether teachers should receive performance-based pay.

Retired businessman Ed Garcia faced off against lawyer Jodi Schaffer in a debate hosted by the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club on Monday night. Marty Von Schaaf, the club's president, moderated the debate, asking questions submitted by audience members.

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The candidate who wins the March 5 primary election will run against independent David Sean Kelman in the Aug. 1 general election in the race to represent the East Brainerd and Apison areas. Schools in District 7 include Apison Elementary, East Brainerd Elementary, East Hamilton Middle, East Hamilton High and Westview Elementary.

Here's what the candidates had to say about matters covered during the debate:

Why they should be elected

In her opening remarks, Schaffer touted her hometown ties, noting she was both a graduate and a current parent of students in the school system.

"I have first-hand knowledge and experience of the strengths and weaknesses of our school system," she said. "I am on the front line of communication with students, parents and teachers because I hear from them daily."

Garcia said he started his career serving in the Marine Corps before spending 35 years working in business. Now that he's retired, he wants to get back into public service, he said.

"We came to Chattanooga, we really love it here," he said. "I quickly realized that school board is where I can make the most impact on their (the grandchildren's) lives and the lives of my kids."

He later also said he was retired, which puts him in a different phase of life than Schaffer.

"I have the time needed to dedicate my full time to this," he said. "It's going to take a really, really long time to come up to speed if all you can dedicate to this is a few hours a week."

In response, Schaffer said she gives up her time to her church, community and schools.

"Working moms, we know how to get things done," she said. "We're not afraid of late nights and no sleep. I know how to work, and I promise to work if elected."


Teacher pay

Across the country, teachers are leaving the profession en masse, and they often cite the low pay. In August, the Hamilton County school board approved a three-year teacher contract, which included a 5% raise. Teachers have raised concerns that the raise was negated by an increase in insurance premium costs.

Both Garcia and Schaffer said they supported raising teacher's wages.

Garcia said teachers' compensation plan and evaluation metrics should be reviewed. Their evaluation methodology should be weighted more heavily on progress than they are on outcomes, he said.

"We need to agree on what a good teacher is to make sure that we reward those behaviors," he said. "And then we, you know, the teachers that aren't meeting the cut, they need to do something else."

Schaffer disagreed and said there are better approaches than performance-based pay. Management can evaluate whether teachers are doing well, she said.

"Our schools are made up of different populations," she said. "Some teachers, they have students that are having a hard time with the English language. That's an unfair criterion to that teacher, and that's why our teacher morale is down, so we have to support the teachers rather than putting them on that type of salary system."

Social-emotional learning

Last year, the district hired SEAD coaches, which stands for social, emotional, academic development, to provide assistance to students, staff and families to better manage student behavior.

Garcia and Schaffer each emphasized that schools' first priority should be academics.

"Social emotional development should be left up to the parents," Garcia said. "I'm very concerned about all these SEAD counselors. ... The fact that the academic is third on that list troubles me greatly."

Both also said parents have the right to be informed about when coaches meet with students and what students are being told.

"It's not working, the behavior is being rewarded versus being consequenced," Schaffer said. "As a parental right, schools should never withhold information from the parents. There are parental constitutional rights that have to be protected."

Drugs in schools

The candidates weighed in on how they would combat the increase of drugs in middle and high schools.

Schaffer said the district needs to have a rapid follow through when dealing with drug use.

"We have to be strict, concise and cut it off," she said. "If a student commits a crime, they have to do the time, right? We just have to have a follow through."

Garcia listed the responsibilities of the school board, including passing policies that affect the educational system.

"The policies that we're drafting today have no teeth," he said. "They have no teeth because Dr. (Justin) Robertson allows his principals to choose whether or not they want to follow a policy. That needs to stop."

School choice

Currently, Hamilton County Schools provides satellite sites across the county to provide transportation to students who attend magnet schools or other programs outside their zone. With some exceptions, transportation is not provided to open enrollment schools.

In November, the school board voted to accept a federal grant to look into how, with its school choice program, transportation is serving students and whether it can be made more efficient.

Garcia said students should go to the schools where they are zoned.

"I think that's important," he said. "It adds to their sense of community. Busing children back and forth to different districts, I don't think works. I don't think it has worked. I think it creates problems, and I think we should stop that cost."

Schaffer said every parent should have the right to choose the best place for their child to be educated.

"Transportation is one of the most inefficient parts of our budget," she said. "I'm for school choice, but it is on the parents to provide the transportation."

Fixing curriculum

At the end, the moderator gave audience members a chance to ask additional questions. One asked how the candidates would fix the curriculum.

Schaffer said the school board needed to collaborate with teachers to come up with creative solutions.

"There's pressure from the outside in other states," she said. "We have to build a wall by building good curriculum and policy at the school board. We have to build a framework."

In response, Garcia said frameworks are fine but funding talks. He cited the millions of dollars Hamilton County Schools receives from the federal government each year.

"That money has strings attached," he said. "It prevents us from teaching the curriculum we want to teach. It prevents us from doing the things we want to do. We need to figure out a way not to need that money from the federal government, so that we can educate our children outright."

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

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