Things got personal Monday night at the third Hamilton County Board of Education debate, this time in District 9 featuring incumbent school board chairman Steve Highlander and his opponent, D'Andre Anderson.
The debate, hosted by UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0, was moderated by Marcus Perez and focused on the same topics that the other debates have focused on — ensuring equity in schools, whether candidates would seek to create a strategic plan and develop multi-year budgets, early childhood education, dual enrollment and workforce development and the role of school board members and the school board.
Remaining school board debates
When: May 21, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Hixson High School
Who: Incumbent Joe Smith and Miracle Hurley
When: May 29, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Dalewood Middle School
Who: Incumbent Karitsa Mosley Jones and Ann Pierre Jones
Anderson, who graduated from Central High School last year and was a former student representative on the school board, played on his youth and emphasized that he could bring a fresh perspective to the board, something be believes is needed.
"I think we need to get comfortable [with school board members] not just living in their offices ... and that's not just directed at Dr. Highlander. I think some board members are getting complacent and forgetting their responsibilities," Anderson said. "I think they [people in District 9] are wanting someone who are going to make sure without a doubt, their school board member is concerned about their students. ... For someone to finally say, 'I'm here for you guys, I'm here for you all.'"
Highlander, though not always a direct target of Anderson's statements, can be considered part of the long-serving group — he has worked in education and in the community in Hamilton County for more than 45 years.
His experience, Highlander touted, was one of the most beneficial aspects of his service on the board.
A big focus of the night, something many community members were waiting for, was a response to school board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith's denouncement of UnifiEd and its Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) project's call for integrating Hamilton County schools.
None of the seven other board members had spoken out since Thurman, of District 1, and Smith, of District 3, released their statement Friday.
At the debate, Highlander said he felt it was premature for board members to be commenting on the APEX plan or any other plans suggesting solutions or recommendations to the board. The school board also has received a plan from the NAACP in recent months outlining solutions for desegregating what the NAACP identifies as 12 segregated schools in the county.
"I have volunteered to be on the Equity Task Force. I think we would be premature to list specific plans until we see what is recommended by the equity task force, and then the task force will present their ideas and it will be voted on," Highlander said in response to the debate question posed to him, asking what specific strategies a board member would employ to ensure a plan for integrating public schools was developed and implemented.
Highlander added that "I personally would like to do things correctly [rather] than too fast."
For Anderson, that was not enough — he felt Highlander should have responded quicker to Thurman and Smith's release.
"Sometimes we have to watch what we say," Anderson said. "As far as segregated schools, it's 2018, that's not OK."
Other board members also spoke out Monday.
Kathy Lennon, of District 2, said she was angry and disappointed by Thurman and Smith's statements.
"I'm going to speak out because I'm angry ... I'm disappointed in Joe and Rhonda. This is something that hasn't come before the board to be voted on, and the board is working on equity issues," Lennon said. "They made it political and it's not political, we are a nonpartisan school board."
Board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4, also emphasized that individual board members do not speak for the board as a whole.
"Every board member is entitled to their own views and opinions on everything the board deals with, but one single board member does not represent the entire board," Robinson said. "As far as equity is concerned, it is the foundation to why I'm a board member and equity will never be a flippant topic for me."
Since Thurman and Smith's statement, addressing busing as a strategy for integrating schools, UnifiEd officials also have spoken publicly. At Monday night's debate, interim executive director Natalie Cook made a statement pointing out "there's no reference to forced busing" in the APEX project report.
"There have been a lot of opinions shared opposing forced busing as a solution to desegregate schools: we are with them," Cook said. "UnifiEd shares that position and does not advocate for forced busing. Data, research and most importantly this community's lived history and experience all prove it doesn't work."
Two more debates will be held. The five seats open on the school board will be on the Aug. 2 general election ballot.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.