Updated at 4:43 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Signal Mountain resident Melissa Barrett has been active with Stay with HCDE. Barrett is not affiliated with the organization.
Though the Signal Mountain Town Council has disbanded the committee created to investigate the possibility of creating an independent school district, the local education advocacy group UnifiEd has offered to serve as a mediator for future community conversations.
During the public comment portion of Monday night's council meeting, Alexa LeBoeuf, the director of community engagement and design for UnifiEd, announced the group's desire to facilitate conversations about the highly contested topic, specifically among the council, the Friends of Signal Mountain (a group formed in support of an independent school district) and Stay with HCDE (the Hamilton County Department of Education), a group formed to oppose a split.
"It just seemed to be, since they were disbanding the School System Viability Committee, the right time to have a discussion," said Dick Graham, one of UnifiEd's APEX steering committee members. Graham, a longtime resident of Signal Mountain, approached UnifiEd about facilitating discussions on Signal Mountain.
"It's been a heated conversation, one of the most divisive issues I've seen, and I've lived on the mountain for more than 30 years," Graham said. "They're good at organizing good conversation about issues."
LeBoeuf echoed Graham's sentiments and said UnifiEd's mission is to facilitate and train community members to hold such conversations on their own.
"UnifiEd is very interested in supporting public dialogue," LeBoeuf said. "Our vision at all times is that the community members [of Hamilton County] set the agenda."
Last month, the Signal Mountain Town Council passed a resolution that disbanded the School System Viability Committee it created last year to investigate the feasibility of Signal Mountain's three schools splitting from Hamilton County Schools.
The resolution's language was amended Monday night, but the committee, which presented its final report last fall, concluding that a split was possible, has been officially disbanded and the committee members commended.
Despite disbanding the committee, some Signal Mountain residents feel the topic is still emotionally charged — and confusing.
"I'm tired of the emotional discourse We still have friends and neighbors who don't know what happened," said Signal Mountain resident Melissa Barrett. "I think you all need to explain why you ever formed the SSVC committee, what it found, win/wins we've had through the process, what you could do, what you couldn't do."
The council's process — from originally discussing a split in December 2016 to the formation of the SSVC committee and subsequent meetings with Hamilton County — has largely been criticized for a lack of transparency and public input.
"I don't think you all know what the majority of the people on Signal Mountain truly want," Barrett added.
A tense public forum held on Dec. 11 during a council meeting was packed with those who spoke against a split, but some said those in favor of the split did not feel comfortable expressing their support. Barrett called for the Town Council to hold a public meeting, even in light of disbanding the committee.
Barrett was not sure if she was in favor of a UnifiEd-led discussion though, citing unfamiliarity with the organization.
"I think there's a lot of good suggestions," Barrett said. "I think everyone wants to heal the continuous emotions and everyone wants the best for their schools. I don't think everyone on the mountain understands the issues that we debated on the mountain this year."
Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley also spoke in favor of open dialogue, though positioning it between the ad-hoc committee and UnifiEd. The council has made it clear that it is no longer having those discussions, Howley said.
Representatives from UnifiEd met with a group of Stay with HCDE members earlier this month, as both groups have expressed interest and directed energy toward a Senate bill introduced last month that is relevant to the Signal Mountain school split issue.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, introduced Senate Bill 1755, which would require school districts to transfer ownership of school buildings with the boundaries of a municipality that had formed its own school system — one of the biggest issues that Signal faced when considering a split.
UnifiEd Executive Director Jonas Barriere has voiced the organization's stance against the bill, though UnifiEd has not taken a stance on a possible Signal Mountain split.
"We're calling it the 'Schoolhouse Heist' bill because it's forcibly taking schools from taxpayers and giving them to someone else," Barriere said. "It would kill infrastructure investment, exacerbate segregation issues and those buildings were not built for Signal Mountain kids — they were built for all Hamilton County kids."
Stay with HCDE also has redirected the group's efforts toward campaigning against the bill. Members have launched a postcard campaign to lobby local representatives against the bill.
The group will hold an informal event from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at Mayfly Coffee, where citizens can sign and send postcards to their representatives opposing Sen. Gardenhire's bill.
"I think it's a good start," said Elizabeth Baker, one of the founders of Stay with HCDE. "I think that everyone has their own thoughts, but if a lot of people want to have that discussion then they should."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.