As a fresh school year starts today in Hamilton County, new schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson faces many of the same challenges the first superintendent of the newly consolidated city and county school system grappled with two decades ago.
"I want to change the fact that over the course of the last 20 years we are hearing some of the same conversations," Johnson said last week.
Current hot-button issues of funding, segregation and equity echo those at the forefront of the 1994 debate of whether the city should get out of the school business. City voters, split along racial lines with the black community strongly against, narrowly approved consolidating the school systems — 22,694 to 19,044 — forcing the predominantly white county to take control of the predominantly black city schools.
Jesse Register, the first superintendent of the merged Hamilton County Department of Education, which opened its doors in 1997, said when he started it was a "dynamic and complicated time."
"Right from the start we had to talk about the black and white issues and integration of the schools," Register said last week.
The newly consolidated district was not immune to the problems the separate districts faced.
Tensions around funding continued in the consolidated system and remain a simmering issue today. The school system also continues to combat chronic under-performance at a number of its high-poverty schools, causing the state to now weigh interventions for five of the district's 79 schools.
At the same time, several municipalities within the county are contemplating starting separate school districts. Signal Mountain, specifically, has launched a committee to investigate forming a district with three of the county's top- performing schools, concerned the county does not adequately support the schools.
Eddie Holmes, former chairman of the local chapter of the NAACP and Chattanooga Housing Authority, said the same underlying problems are plaguing schools today that were decades ago. Students are still not given equal access to resources and opportunities, he said.
"Nothing has really changed," Holmes said last week. "You're fighting the same battles."
Discussions about consolidating the city and county systems became a political flashpoint in January 1994, when the city established an 18-member committee to investigate the implications of merging the districts.
Since 1990, the city school system had asked the county for additional funding and was denied, so the city's taxpayers were contributing an additional $8 million annually to support its schools, accounting for about 10 percent of the city school system's budget, newspaper archives show.
If the systems were combined, the city taxpayers would save, proponents of the merger pledged.
But City Schools Superintendent Harry Reynolds called the idea "high treason," and likened the move to "taking an unwanted sack of kittens and throwing it into a stream," newspaper archives show.
Leaders in the black community strongly opposed the consolidation, saying it would be an abandonment of the city's kids, many of whom were living in poverty. They feared the county wouldn't do as good of a job educating the city's students, and the combined system wouldn't take any steps toward desegregation.
There was also concern that merging the school system would lead to an adoption of metro-government, which had failed at the polls in 1964, 1970 and 1984.
But proponents of the merger within the city said the move would clarify the county's funding responsibility and equalize taxation. The county was responsible for funding both school systems, relying primarily on property tax revenues from the city and county, but the city school system argued it wasn't receiving adequate funding.
In August 1994, the Chattanooga City Council voted 5-4 to put a referendum to consolidate the systems on the upcoming ballot, which passed with 54 percent of the vote in November. Election results show there was strong support for the merger in the city's white suburbs and heavy opposition from the more diverse inner city.
After the vote, proponents of the consolidation promised to make the school system better by taking the best and eliminating the worst of both systems.
But at the end of the day, Holmes said the city's schools were absorbed by the county.
"We were taken over," he said.
Two years of planning took place before the first day of school for the merged system in 1997, including representatives from both the city and county.
During that time, there was fear on both sides about resources being stripped away, if schools and teachers would be treated fairly, and whether students would have access to the same resources, said Joe Conner, a local attorney who was elected to the first joint school board in 1996.
"But when schools were open in August of 1997, the buses ran, the lights were on, kids were fed, teachers taught and students got home safely," Conner said. " I'm proud of the fact that it wasn't a big deal when school started and we then transitioned from there. It was pretty smooth."
Conner served on the board for 12 years, representing both city and county schools in District 7, which includes the East Brainerd area. He said there wasn't the friction people expected, and people from all sides were working to support the system.
But as superintendent, Register found himself having to carefully navigate the area's complex racial history.
Immediately after taking the helm of the merged district in 1996, he was in the car driving to Atlanta to meet with the Office of Civil Rights about an active complaint the city schools system had previously filed against the county, a rekindling of a complaint previously addressed in a 1971 federal court-ordered desegregation plan.
Register attempted to diversify the schools through rezoning and magnet programs, which was unpopular among many in the county, but was successful to end the civil rights complaint and prevent future lawsuits about zoning, he said.
In 2000, state education officials released a list naming the 20 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state; nine were located in Chattanooga.
The community was shocked to learn its schools were on the list, Register said, and he began working to implement aggressive and systematic turnaround work in the schools, which became known as the Benwood Initiative.
Through a controversial reconstitution of the schools, about half of the educators were moved out of the nine city schools and offered jobs in the county, and strong leaders were recruited to the nine schools along with top teachers. In addition to the personnel changes, Register said the schools were given additional support and educators received incentivized pay.
"You have to give credit to a lot of people for that," Register said in a recent interview, noting the Benwood Foundation, the Public Education Foundation and then-Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker were invested and financially supported the work.
Over the years, the schools posted steady improvements and gained national attention, but after Register left in 2006, a lot of the money dried up and the work stalled.
"What troubles me now, is that some of the schools that were labeled 'bad' are still struggling," Register said. "I really regret that that effort didn't stick, that it didn't last or work over a long period of time."
Holmes said despite lingering concerns in the black community about the impact of the merger, Register helped relieve some fears because he didn't overlook the city's students and was willing to listen.
But the attention and resources Register spent helping the city's schools elevated tension among county residents, who felt they weren't getting a fair shake. And during Register's tenure, he was constantly battling the school board and the Hamilton County Commission over policy, personnel and funding.
A year after securing the school district's last tax increase in 2005, Register retired in the midst of political turmoil. And much of the work Register started was abandoned under the next two superintendents: Jim Scales and Rick Smith.
After years of reform, fatigue set in and the community struggled to keep momentum alive, many have said. Foundation funds also dwindled, as they were never intended to be a long-term fix, and financial incentives to keep top educators in the schools dried up.
The political climate squelched any hope of a tax increase, and for 12 years the district has been forced to make do with modest budget increases spurred by natural growth in property tax revenue.
Today, a third of Hamilton County's schools educate a large share of students living in poverty, and many of those schools are concentrated in some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. The schools are among the district's lowest-performing and are filled with predominantly minority students.
National research shows the toxic effect poverty has on education, but also that it can be combated and doesn't have to be crippling.
But in Hamilton County, there has been little effort to reduce the high concentration of poverty in some schools, and the district's work to boost student outcomes within high-poverty schools has proven unsuccessful. As a result, the state is considering taking over some of the district's schools that have struggled for more than a decade, and about a dozen other schools rank in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide.
Three percent of graduates at predominantly poor schools are considered college and career ready, according to ACT results. Thirty percent of students attending schools without a large share of poor students meet college and career benchmarks. And across the district, data shows 65 percent of graduates of the Hamilton County Schools system fail to earn any degree or certificate past high school within six years, which leaves them unqualified for the majority of jobs coming to the area.
The situation is so dire that public education has been pushed to the front of Hamilton County's economic development conversations, and business leaders say the region's economic future is dependent on a well-trained workforce.
Groups such as Chattanooga 2.0, UnifiEd and the NAACP have also grown vocal about the moral obligation to improve education outcomes for all students, regardless of ZIP code, giving students what they need to be successful.
In the past two years, the national landscape around education has drastically changed, as academic standards have become more strenuous, with more emphasis on accountability, testing and teacher evaluations. Local workforce demands have also shifted, as a majority of the jobs arriving in Hamilton County paying more than $35,000 a year require some post-secondary education.
Conner said the responsibility to prepare kids for the workforce has continued to be a challenge for the school system over the decades, along with funding.
"I don't know what the answer is today, but I think strong leadership from the top down is where you start," he said, adding that he hopes the school system finds a way to move forward. "I think incremental moves are sometimes the best you can do these days."
Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, said he's hopeful the county is at a new moment, pointing to the work that happened more than a decade ago to improve the nine schools as proof that students can post significant gains with the right support.
Challener was involved in that work in the early 2000s, and is optimistic the district is poised for growth again now, saying everyone in the community from parents to foundations and business leaders are engaged.
"It's critical to the quality of life for all of us, and it's critical for all of the kids in our public schools," Challener said. "I believe we are at a moment that really can be transformational for our students and for the larger county."
Johnson says he knows things need to change and is aware of the challenges the school system faces in performance and preparing all students for college and careers. But, he remains optimistic things will improve because the community is involved and demanding it.
"I think that's advantageous for us," he said.
January 1994: Chattanooga City Council establishes a committee to consider consolidating the school systems.
August 1994: City Council votes 5-4 to put a resolution about merging the school systems on the Nov. 8 ballot.
November 1994: City of Chattanooga votes 22,694 to 19,044 to give up control of its schools to the county.
January 1995: The Public Education Foundation names a 13-member steering committee to help plan for the new countywide school system.
1996: Jesse Register is hired as the first superintendent of the merged Hamilton County Department of Education.
August 1997: The consolidated school system opens.
1999: The County Commission approves a tax increase to boost revenue for the school district.
2001: The Benwood Initiative launches, supporting some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.
2005: The County Commission approves a tax increase to boost revenue for the school district.
2006: Register retires, the school board hires Jim Scales as the next superintendent.
2011: The board votes 6-3 to buy-out the remainder of Scales contract and placed Rick Smith, the district’s deputy superintendent, at the helm in a 5-3 vote.
March 2015: Smith resigns after weathering three tumultuous months.
April 2016: The school board names longtime Hamilton County educator Kirk Kelly interim superintendent.
June 2017: School board votes 5-4 to name Bryan Johnson the district’s new superintendent.
Source: newspaper archives