With plummeting graduation and student success rates dominating the local conversation, the residents of Hamilton County have called for change. And, after bumping incumbent Donna Horn from her seat on the Hamilton County Board of Education as District 7 representative, Joe Wingate has promised to be a catalyst for that change.
Of the 3,655 votes cast in the District 7 race, Wingate drew 2,489 to Horn's 1,166 — the largest margin of any of the winners in the Aug. 4 school board election.
A former high school teacher in three county schools for a collective 10 years, Wingate said he has seen the school system's shortcomings firsthand, and he continues to see its weaknesses from his current position as baseball coach and physical education professor at Chattanooga State Community College. He cites watching the overall proficiencies of area students gradually decline as part of what pushed him to run for office.
"It just really bothers me that we are where we are," he said, referencing deficiencies in math, reading and writing. "We're producing students that are not workforce ready."
Wingate plans to help heal the district by first addressing what he calls the greatest void in the school system: leadership.
"We have some good leaders in the system. We have some good teachers in the system. We just don't have enough of them," Wingate said.
Explaining that "the art of leadership has been lost," Wingate said he hopes to fill all levels of the school system with servant leaders who spend their day trying to make other's lives better — a process that starts with choosing the next superintendent.
One of the biggest challenges the new school board will face is hiring a permanent superintendent to replace interim Kirk Kelly, and though Wingate admitted he would love to have someone with a background in education, he said the position would be best filled with someone from the business world who has proven they can manage an organization like the school system — the largest employer in the county.
"To find an educator that's gonna have that background already I just think that when you do that, you narrow and limit your pools of candidates," he said.
While tackling leadership, Wingate also said he plans to take a hard look at how the county's education department is spending its $417 million budget. He hopes to make sure the most is squeezed out of every tax dollar to prevent the need to ask for more funding, and said he would start by getting the school system to release the budget to the school board in a more timely manner so it has more time to review.
Above all else, Wingate said his overall goal for his term is to make decisions based on what's best for teachers and students, whether that means increasing teacher morale by reducing micromanagement or digging into policy to see how it affects or limits students.
Though he admitted that others have made similar promises, he said he is determined to bring results because he has three young children just starting their educational journey in the school system, and he wants to make sure they, and every other child, have every opportunity to succeed.
"I'm invested because my kids are in this thing," Wingate said. "And nothing's gonna trump that."
Contact Myron Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-6423.