May 31, Noon to 1 p.m.
MayFly Coffee Shop, 708 Mississippi Ave.
El Metate, 1238 Taft Hwy.
East Hamilton talks
June 1, 6-7 p.m.
Starbucks, 2217 Hamilton Place Blvd.
Dunkin’ Donuts, 4535 Highway 58
Mellow Mushroom, 2318 Lifestyle Way
Heaven & Ale, 9431 Bradmore Lane
With Mayor Jim Coppinger expected to present the 2018 fiscal budget to the Hamilton County Commission June 7, UnifiEd has launched a series of small community gatherings to address what its supporters believe should be commissioners' first priority: school funding.
"That's what this campaign is about — asking the county to put education funding first, and once all of our schools' needs are met, then figure out what they can spend the rest of their money on," said Natalie Cook, communication director for the local education advocacy nonprofit.
The "EdTalks," being held in coffee shops and restaurants throughout the county, are informal conversations to help residents understand the school funding process and bring their attention to school needs not currently met by the county.
Among the long list of needs are basics ranging from arts education, which Cook said only a quarter of county students have access to, to full-time school nurses, which she said many institutions are without. The list also includes workforce readiness programs, adequate technology and a pay increase to retain top-quality teachers, all of which Cook said will go unmet if the commission rejects Hamilton County Schools' request for $32 million in additional funds as compared to the current budget.
Though separate from the school budget, capital funds for new school construction will also be a topic of discussion at the EdTalks. New facilities for the Hamilton County school board's three prioritized schools — Harrison Elementary, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts and East Hamilton Middle — would alone cost the county up to $144 million, and the district still faces more than $200 million in deferred maintenance projects across the county.
Organizers said the conversation series is meant to kick-start discussions about change by gathering residents to share the personal experiences that fuel their advocacy for specific needs. Each session is intended for about five to 10 attendees, emphasizing quality over quantity and allowing community members to see different perspectives on funding needs.
"It's about gathering information, not just giving," said Paul Norman, director of organizational development for UnifiEd. "People can feel comfortable expressing things that they may not have felt they had the space to express before."
The next step, said Cook, is taking action. Through its website, UnifiEd provides residents with all the tools they need to identify and contact their county representatives so they can make their voices heard before the final budget is approved around June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
"Ultimately, the county commission holds the purse strings, so it's up to the community to tell their commissioners how they want them to vote on it," Cook said. "If this matters to them, they have to tell them. Otherwise it's going to be status quo."
UnifiEd has already scheduled about 20 EdTalks throughout the county's nine districts to take place before mid-June, and will continue to post dates and times for additional talks as they are scheduled. Cook said the nonprofit hopes to make EdTalks an ongoing series, adding that the topics will shift to match the most prevalent school-related issues at the time.
Each session should last about an hour, and Cook noted that they are planned for various days and times to accommodate different schedules. To learn more, visit unifi-ed.org/ed-talks.
North Hamilton talks
June 9, noon to 1 p.m.
The Meeting House, 3912 Dayton Blvd.
June 1, noon to 1 p.m.
UnifiEd office, 1609 McCallie Ave.
Cafe on the Corner, 826 Scenic Highway, Lookout Mountain
Starbucks, 5610 Brainerd Road
UnifiEd office, 1609 McCallie Ave.
Cracker Barrel, 50 Birmingham Highway, Lookout Valley
Mean Mug, 114 W. Main St.