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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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