A meeting to discuss Signal Mountain's consideration to break away from the Hamilton County Department of Education ended Thursday with little clarity on the next steps in the process.
Originally intended as an effort for the two sides to discuss the issue openly, the meeting included the entire Signal Mountain Town Council, all but one county school board member and several education department officials. It ended up looking as though the two sides were working from entirely different agendas.
Signal Mountain officials, led largely by Mayor Chris Howley, asked about thoughts about the report brought to the town council by the School System Viability Committee it formed to investigate the feasibility of the split, as well as what Hamilton County Schools would gain by Signal Mountain schools remaining a part of the county system.
Hamilton County Schools, on the other hand, continually emphasized the accomplishments the system has seen since Superintendent Bryan Johnson took the helm in July, after Signal had already initiated the investigation.
The possibility of Signal's schools breaking away from the district was first entertained by the town in December 2016. In February 2017, the council formed the viability committee, which returned its report in October. The report found that a split, which would include three of the county's top-performing schools (Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary) was feasible if Signal could overcome a few obstacles.
Despite Howley's prodding though, Hamilton County Schools officials would not take a stance on the report.
"I don't want to downplay the energy and effort that was put into the report at all, but I think the response would be as a school board that's responsible for the education of the community, our concern is not where the report went right or wrong, our concern is with the education of the children in our community," said District 7 school board member Joe Wingate. "The report does not matter to me personally as a board [member], it matters to me what you're going to do with it."
Johnson echoed Wingate's response, and though he said that the district had not taken a hard line on the issue, he stated more than once his desire for Signal Mountain schools to remain a part of Hamilton County Schools.
Previously, the district's only official decision on the issue was a vote in November pledging not to sell or transfer ownership of the school buildings on the mountain if the town did vote to break away.
Johnson emphasized that the district is seeking to understand the town's concerns, but that the issue was overall a distraction.
"We haven't talked about children yet. We haven't talked about instructional practices yet. We haven't talked about wraparound students yet. Those things are at the core of educating students," Johnson said, receiving a round of applause.
The district's strategy, set at the beginning of the meeting by Johnson's list of accomplishments, included inviting Chief Schools Officer Justin Robertson, Elementary Director Neelie Parker and Chief Operations Officer Lee McDade to share some of the significant achievements of Signal schools, as well as plans that are in the works in the district.
One of those is an attempt to look at how directors approach supporting schools in the entire county more efficiently. Johnson said the district is looking at communities geographically in an attempt to provide support more efficiently. Robertson is one of the officials charged with proposing a plan in his first 60 days in his new position.
District 2 school board member Kathy Lennon, who represents Signal Mountain, is in the planning stages of forming an advisory committee consisting of representatives from each of the schools as well as parents in her district. Lennon intends to launch the committee later this month.
Other issues, such as start times and the safety concerns due to only one entrance existing at Signal's middle/high school are things for which the district is reportedly exploring possible solutions.
As far as next steps, the Town Council plans to hold more meetings to receive public feedback on the issue.
Johnson laid bare an apparent division among the council's members when he asked them to gauge community response to the plan to break from Hamilton County.
Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek both felt the community was divided into factions of those who are in favor of a split, those who are against it and those who are undecided but are interested in investigating the issue further.
Councilman Dan Landrum disagreed.
"I feel like I should speak up, but I don't want to make this any more controversial," Landrum said. "Framing the argument of people who are super against or super for or who haven't made up their minds is not how I would do it."
Instead, Landrum pointed out that there are some in the community who have been concerned about how the council has explored the issue. The Signal Mountain Town Council has been criticized by opponents of the split for a perceived lack of transparency and ignoring what the community wants.
Johnson noticeably was the only official to receive applause from the large crowd, which he did a second time after firmly stating, "Don't allow personal agendas to allow something that is special to erode."
Howley, who said he was undecided on the overall issue, despite speculation and criticism from some area residents that he was the original proponent of the split, said the council would determine its next steps at its next agenda meeting Monday.
Johnson characterized the meeting as a success after it ended.
"I feel like we shared the issues and that we want them to stay a part of Hamilton County Schools, but that we want to be engaged in this discussion," he said.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.