Next step in possible Signal Mountain schools breakaway unclear

Next step in possible Signal Mountain schools breakaway unclear

January 19th, 2018 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Signal Mountain Vice Mayor Dick Gee, left, and Mayor Chris Howley, right, listen as Councilwoman Amy Speek asks a question during a meeting between the Signal Mountain Town Council and the Hamilton County Board of Education at Nolan Elementary on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Signal Mountain officials and members of the board discussed the town's consideration of splitting from the Hamilton County school system to form their own independent district. (Staff Photo by Doug Strickland)

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Signal Mountain's ongoing debate over whether the mountain's schools should break away from the Hamilton County Schools system is at a stalemate.

But Mayor Chris Howley plans on resolving one issue that has had the community up in arms since the council's Jan. 8 meeting — whether or not he received a text message from a School System Viability Committee member and accusations he has discussed the possibility of a smaller district for just schools in the municipality.

"I'm going to apologize," Howley told the Times Free Press. "I did receive that text message ... I was wrong to say I didn't."

At the council meeting earlier this month, where Howley ended the meeting calling out Hamilton County Schools officials for supposedly breaking promises made to the town after a joint meeting about the split, Councilman Dan Landrum brought up the issue of a text message between a council member and committee Chairman John Friedl.

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The committee was originally scheduled to meet that week, and Landrum felt it was inappropriate. The text message, Landrum said at the time, was proof someone on the council knew the committee was exploring the option of a smaller independent school district.

At the council meeting, council member Amy Speek said no one on the council knew of, or would support, such a district.

Howley echoed that sentiment, stating he would not support a district that did not also include Walden and unincorporated Hamilton County. Howley also denied having seen that text message at the council meeting.

The text message, obtained by the Times Free Press and also circulating Signal Mountain Facebook groups, indicates Howley exchanged texts with John Friedl before Christmas.

The texts show a conversation about a possible School System Viability Committee meeting and whether it would fall under the state's Sunshine law. Howley said he would check with town manager Boyd Veal.

Friedl did acknowledge interest in exploring a 1,700-student, Signal-school-only district in the text exchange with Howley.

Despite the text and ongoing debate, Howley said the committee would not explore such a school district.

At this point, the committee is not scheduled to meet again until the council directs it to, as was decided on at the Jan. 8 meeting.

Howley anticipates the school split being a large part of the council's work session next Friday.

"We need to meet and decide what route we are going to take forward as a council," he said.

Howley expressed doubt that the debate will continue.

"I don't think we have a good resolution right now to go on," he said.

The council would need to vote to put a referendum on the ballot for Signal residents to vote on a separation. Howley has not presented a resolution to shut down the committee, but did not deny that might soon follow.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.