The Hamilton County Department of Education building is shown in this file photo.

More than 130 community leaders, advocates and businessmen and women came together Wednesday to stress to the community and, ultimately, Hamilton County Schools the importance of addressing equity.

"There have been some questions in our community about what educational equity means. At its heart, equity is about making sure that all children in Hamilton County — whether black, white, or brown — have a real opportunity to reach their full academic potential regardless of their background, neighborhood, or family circumstance," states the open letter they released on Wednesday.


Open letter


The coalition released the letter in a strategic move the day before the next school board meeting. The group was spurred to action by community debate that followed a statement released by board members Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, and Joe Smith, of District 3, on May 11 that denounced a report by a local nonprofit, UnifiEd. The APEX report recommended enhanced transportation options and greater student choice to increase opportunities for students of all backgrounds.

"While it's reasonable to debate the potential strategies the school system might implement to address and improve educational equity for all students, we must address equity — the facts and the gaps — within our public schools," it continued.

Since Thurman and Smith's statement, weeks of controversy and confusion led to a rushed vote on May 24, in which the board voted 8-1 to allow the school system to seek private funds to bring in national diversity consultants to work with the Equity Task Force that the district established in March. But despite the majority vote, some board and community members have remained in disagreement.

Some board members have expressed hesitation about what type of work is needed, whether it includes national consultants to help guide the task force's work, cultural competency training for teachers, or whether equity is even an actual issue.

Signees of the letter made clear they feel equity is a problem and the community's future depends on how inequities are addressed.

"Our future success as a community depends on the education opportunities we provide our children today," the statement reads.

Tim Kelly, president of Kelly Auto Group and chairman of the Community Foundation's board of directors, said he signed the letter not only as the chairman and a member of Chattanooga 2.0's steering committee, but as a businessman.

"I really feel strongly about this simply because what we have been doing around here for the past 20 or 30 years hasn't worked," Kelly said. "We basically have too many kids who are left behind. And from a particular, economic perspective, we don't have enough qualified kids in our labor pool."

"There's a moral argument, there's a legal argument and there's an economic argument. We have to find a way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats," Kelly added.

Against the backdrop of talk of a possible re-vote, Jared Bigham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, and the vast network of supporters of that program, decided to comment publicly prior to this week's board meeting. Chattanooga 2.0 is a coalition of business and community leaders, educators and foundations that hopes to double the number of county residents with post-secondary degrees or credentials by 2025.

However, Bigham emphasized the stance is not simply a reaction to the current climate around the equity conversation.

"I think it's important to be clear this wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to anything. A focus on equity has been embedded in the 2.0 work and the work of multiple organizations that signed the letter," Bigham said in a statement. "It is important to put a stake in the ground — as organization and business leaders, parents, and educational institutions — that shows we are committed to the work as a community, that we support the school district, and we support aggressively addressing the issue of equity."

Ernest Reid, pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the state Partnership Network Advisory Board, added that it was important for the community to know where the school board stands.

"I do think it's time in regards to the school board that their yays be yays and their nays be nays," Reid said. "I think we need to know where each individual school board member stands on this issue."

Thurman, one of the few board members who has continued to comment on the issue, stood by her argument that it would be known if students were being treated unfairly.

"Which schools are they speaking of and which students are they speaking about? They're wanting the school board to be parents to these kids; education is here for any of the kids who want it," Thurman said after she was asked about the open letter, though she had not yet seen it. "You're telling me that we have been unfair to some of these students, and that's simply not true."

Thurman contends that the community expects the school board to provide for or fix problems that are not the responsibility of the school system.

"This is a societal issue, there's issues [students] deal with in their neighborhoods; those aren't issues we are set up for dealing with," she said. "That is not our job."

Former school board member and pastor of New United Missionary Baptist Church Jeffrey Wilson said that these equity issues aren't new, and that this letter is a call for community action.

"It's the same issue that we faced 10 years ago, the data hasn't changed the same gaps are there in 2018 as they were in 2008," Wilson said. "I think there are enough voices, there are enough individuals who understand that you need to create opportunities for the betterment of all your citizens. The challenge is to get all of those individuals to the table and all those individuals to speak out, and initiatives like this can help them to do that."

Superintendent Bryan Johnson declined to comment publicly on the letter or the community's debate about equity prior to Thursday's board meeting. Johnson did confirm that he and the board members would begin talking about updates from the Equity Task Force, as well as the district's next steps, in the policy committee work session scheduled at 4 p.m. Thursday.

The same topic is on the agenda for Thursday's regularly-scheduled school board meeting at 5:30 p.m.

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

List of signees

Jared T. Bigham; Executive Director, Chattanooga 2.0

Jack Studer; Chairman of the Board, Erlanger Hospital

Cameron Doody; President, Bellhops

Tim Kelly; President, Kelly Auto Group

Steven Angle; Chancellor, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Rebecca Ashford; President, Chattanooga State Community College

Donna McConnico; CEO, Signal Centers

Tyler Siira; Treasurer, Unum Group

Christy Gillenwater; President/CEO, Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce

Warren E. Logan, Jr.; President/CEO, Urban League of Greater Chattanooga

Erica Newman; CEO, The Speech & Hearing Center

Ternae T. Jordan Sr.; Pastor and Community Leader

City Councilwoman Carol Berz

Lisa Pinckney; Executive Director, Footprint Foundation

Laurie Stevens; Founder/Director, Chattanooga School of Language LLC

The Rev. Will Lauderback; Associate Pastor, First-Centenary UMC

Maeghan Jones; President, Community Foundation

Lauri Moyle; Anglican Community Chaplain

Bob McNutt; Community Member

Jennifer Holder; Co-Founder, The Chattery

Mike Sarvis; Market President, Synovus

Rachel Gammon; Executive Director, Northside Neighborhood House

Sarah Morgan; President, Benwood Foundation

Andrew Rodgers; ACE IoT Solutions

Kevin L. Adams; Bishop, Olivet

Hal Bowling; Co-founder and Executive Director, LAUNCH CHA

Alison Lebovitz; President, One Clip at a Time

Wayne Williams; Architect

Bess B. Steverson; Community Member

Michael Walton; Executive Director, Green Spaces

BettyeLynn Smith, Owner/Principal, Thornhill-Smith LLC

Jonathan Bragdon; Community Member

Walter Hitchcock; Chair, Purpose Point

Jessica Montague; Trustee, Footprint Foundation

Stephen Culp; Community Member

Stacy Johnson; Executive Director; La Paz Chattanooga

Bob Bosworth; Community Member

Marcus K. Shaw; CEO, CO.LAB

Melissa Blevins, CEO, Girls Inc. of Chattanooga

Frank Alford; Community Member

Abby Studer Garrison; Executive Director, Causeway

Marty Robinson; Community Member

Paul Brock; Community Member/Business Owner

Wayne S. Brown; Community Activist

Gladys Pineda-Loher; Director, International Community Outreach, Chattanooga State

Geoff Millener, 2.0 Innovation Action Team

Alex Cruikshank; Carbon Five

Rev. Matt Busby; Community Member

K. Rodney Arnold, M.D.; Director, Clínica Médicos

Shawanda Mason; Co-Founder, The Chattery

Jonathan Bragdon; 2.0 Innovation Action Team and entrepreneur

Peter T. Cooper; Community Member

Travis Lytle; Community Member

Jim Barrott, Executive Vice President, Technical College, Chattanooga State

Ernest L. Reid, Jr.; Pastor, Second Missionary Baptist Church

Jeffrey T. Wilson; Pastor New United Missionary Baptist Church

Tom Montague; Trustee, Footprint Foundation

Rev. Ann G. Weeks; Community Member

Juan Moreno; Educator

Timothy Benson; Community Member

Julie Stowe; Chair Elect, Community Foundation Of Greater Chattanooga

Peter Woolcock; Chattanooga Football Club Foundation

Ken Adams; Pastor

Robert Clark; Community Member

Shewanee Howard-Baptiste; Community Member

Henry Schulson, Executive Director, Creative Discovery Museum

Kristina Montague; Trustee, Footprint Foundation

Mo Baptiste; Community Member

Karlene Clarity; Community Member

Barry Large; Entrepreneur/Investor

Charles Bass; Community Member

Judge Walter F. Williams

Kristina Montague; Trustee, Footprint Foundation

Becky W. Covington; Educator

Shawn Kurrelmeier-Lee; Community Member

Tina Gibson; Link Inc. Member and Community Supporter

Brandon Hubbard-Heitz; Community Member

Angel McGee Ulmer; Community Leader, The Links, Inc.

Matthew Killebrew; Red Branch Development

Rosite Delgado; Community Member

Dan Challener; President, Public Education Foundation

Stacy Lightfoot; 2.0 Post-Secondary Success Action Team

Katie McCallie; Engaged Citizen

Alfred Smith, Trustee, Footprint Foundation

Robin M. Cayce; Director of Programs, Chattanooga 2.0

Julie Stowe; Community Member

Karen "Candy" Kruesi; Community Member

Bethany Lane; Community Member

Judy M. Schwartz; Community Volunteer

John Montague; Trustee, Footprint Foundation

Bergen Baucom; Community Volunteer

Kelly Fitzgerald; Engaged Citizen

Rick Hitchcock; Community Member

William R. Rush; YMCA Metropolitan Nashville

Ann Coulter; A. Coulter Consulting

Emily O'Donnell; HCDE parent

Jennie Gentry; HCDE Educated

Chris Smith; PhD, FNP, BC, Educator

Susan Byrd; Retired Educator

Deanna Duncan, MD; Community Member

Jonathan Gibbons; Community Member

Alfred Smith, Trustee; Footprint Foundation

Danna Bailey; Engaged Citizen

Annette Douglas Adams; Community Member

Tekelia C. Kelly; Founder/Owner, CHIPS Learning Services

Alyce Benson; Community Member

Stephen Swan; Engaged Citizen

Ariel Ford; Community Member

Michael Stone; 2.0 Innovation Action Team

Dan Bowers; President, ArtsBuild

Everlena M. Holmes; Community Member

Caleb Ludwick; 26 Tools llc

Emily Baker; Educator

Jennifer Andrews; Chattanooga 2.0

Rachel M. Kelly; Ed.S, NCSP, Nationally Certified School Psychologist

Chantelle Roberson; Attorney

Bill Kennedy; 2.0 Great Teachers Action Team

Lakweshia Ewing; Community Leader

Lori Quillen; Community Member

Joyce Hardaway; Executive Director, The Links Academy

Alice Smith; Trustee, Footprint Foundation

Edna Varner; Board Chair, UnifiED

Jessica Hubbuch; Community Member

Scott Cooper; Community Member

Grant Law; Community Volunteer

Richard Tate; Community Member

Elizabeth Tallman; Parent and Public School Advocate

Karen S. Harrison; Executive Director, STEP, Inc.

Sheldon Grizzle; Director of the Chattanooga Football Club Foundation

Andrew Kean; Parent and Community Member

Jayne Griffin; Community Member

Val Armstrong ; President, Tennessee American Water