Hamilton County school board members on Thursday approved Superintendent Bryan Johnson's recommendations to continue work to address equity in schools, but slowed the process down.
Instead of bringing in national diversity consultant Michael Alves and his team later this month, as was approved at the board's May meeting, the board instead committed to discuss and consider several facilitators at the board's July meeting.
Johnson's recommendations were fronted by a firm conversation in which he asked the board if it was still committed to "closing the opportunity gap" for students, whilst presenting information on post-secondary attainment, literacy rates and teacher quality from across the district to the board.
"You all set the direction and the vision for the district. It is important for me to understand that," Johnson told his board. "But I need to ask you, is closing the opportunity gap still a priority for you?"
Thursday's conversation at the board's work session came about after weeks of controversy and confusion set off by 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.
Since Thurman and Smith's statement, community members, organizations and advocates have spoken out both in favor and against the school district's actions, including about an 8-1 vote on May 24 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.
On Wednesday, more than 130 community leaders wrote an open letter urging educational equity in Hamilton County schools.
"Educational equity is not a partisan issue I think the narrative around it has not been one based in reality," Johnson said at the school board meeting. "I want to make sure that I am clear and that we are on the page moving forward."
The majority of board members praised Johnson's, and the task force's, efforts Thursday night, eventually voting 8-1 to accept his three recommendations: Providing an opportunity for multiple "open" task force meetings.
Allowing administration to vet external facilitators and bringing two to three options to the board to consider in July.
Slowing down the process to allow for common understanding of closing the opportunity gap.
The term "opportunity gap" typically refers to disparity in achievement between students of different social economic backgrounds.
Thurman, who voted against the previous decision again voiced her disagreement with needing outside perspectives to point out inequities in schools.
"I really don't want to bring in anyone to come in and tell us what to do," she said. "We as a body know what we need to do. We know these schools and we know these principals."
Many of Thurman's colleagues disagreed with her.
"This board hasn't done this work. This school system hasn't done this work. If it did, 25 percent of our community wouldn't have opted to go to private schools or to charter schools," said board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4.
Board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, echoed Robinson's sentiments and also thanked community organizations like UnifiEd, the NAACP and Chattanooga 2.0 for bringing reports, data and equity issues to the board's attention.
"If it means stepping outside and getting the perspective of other people, then that's what we need to do," Lennon said. "I'm all for moving forward on this. I don't like that you're slowing down the process, but I like that you're bringing it back in July."
Marsha Drake, chief equity officer for the district and coordinator of the task force, said she was pleased with the board's decision.
"We were on a fast track," Drake said. 'I think that by doing this, this will be something that can be sustained."
The task force was originally tasked with providing a set of recommendations for the board to ensure equity and opportunities for students across the county. Johnson emphasized that some subgroups of students, such as special education, English language learners and minorities, will be focused upon, as they are at the state and federal levels when measuring student achievement.
Thursday's vote reiterates the board's commitment to bring in outside experts to help facilitate the conversation and work of the task force, according to Johnson.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.