Incumbent David Testerman and candidate Tucker McClendon squared off in the first of five school board debates hosted by UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0 Monday night.
The event, held at East Ridge Elementary School in District 8, had a sparse crowd, but it focused unsurprisingly on transparency, accountability and equity within the Hamilton County Department of Education — topics important to both organizations.
School board candidate debates
When: May 21, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Hixson High School
Who: Incumbent Joe Smith and Miracle Hurley
Who: Incumbent Karitsa Mosley Jones and Ann Pierre Jones
When: Tonight, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Lookout Valley High School
Who: Candidates Michael Henry and Jenny Hill
When: May 14, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Ooltewah High School
Who: Incumbent Steve Highlander and D’Andre Anderson
Allison Lebovitz, of "The A List" on PBS, moderated the debate, sometimes pressing candidates to address the specific question asked, such as whether they were in favor of redrawing district lines to increase racial and socio-economic diversity in schools or if the county should invest in early childhood education.
When asked how they would rank the school system on preparing students for economic mobility or success, both candidates acknowledge that local schools haven't done a good enough job.
"If we continue to have the path that we have that is college or nothing, we are going to fail and we are going to have students who fail," Testerman said. "If we want young men and women who can enter the workforce and be successful, we need to give them opportunity."
McClendon agreed, citing what he feels is a failure.
"I think the past 20 or 30 years have been terrible and we've failed our children," he said.
Natalie Cook, interim executive director of UnifiEd, the local education advocacy organization that has worked to organize the community in support of Hamilton County's public schools for more than four years, said those types of questions and answers were what UnifiEd and its partners hoped to get out of these debates.
"The hope is that community members will block the dates in their calendars, show up, ask their questions and use that for a jumping-off point for more meaningful dialogue with the candidates," Cook said. "We want[ed] to kick off the campaign season for school board with a forum for candidates to be able to get out the issues and ideas that are most important for them."
UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0 came together to host the five debates, branded under the slogan 'Vision for Excellence.'
Robin Cayce, director of programs for Chattanooga 2.0, said that the name is significant.
"We all have our own vision for excellence, and making sure that is in alignment with the district's vision is so important," Cayce said.
Testerman, who has served on the board since 2010, represents some of the longtime vision shared by several of the former educators and longer-serving members of the school board. At 23, McClendon, who just graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, offers a fresh perspective, but without the experience of an educator.
McClendon advocated for transparency, something he feels the board has lacked, citing the $125 million capital maintenance plan passed last October with little knowledge or input from either board members or the community.
Testerman argued that transparency was something the board was working toward. He also advocated for vocational and technical education as a means to ensure Hamilton County students find success.
Neither candidate provided specific examples of how equity, an issue at the core of UnifiEd's work, could be increased across the district's schools, though both stated they were in favor of working toward such a goal.
Chattanooga 2.0's Executive Director Jared Bigham hopes more community members will come out to the debates.
"It is my hope that community members will take advantage of this opportunity to listen to candidates' thoughts on the current work in schools and, more importantly, ways the district can continue to increase access to opportunities for all students," he said.
The next debate is tonight at 6 p.m. at Lookout Valley High School in District 6.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.