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A special session of the Hamilton County Board of Education was canceled an hour and a half before the meeting was scheduled to begin Thursday, further postponing a vote on whether to approve a five-year contract with Teach for America.

At the board's Oct. 18 regular monthly meeting, board members clashed over whether to approve an agreement with the nationally known nonprofit organization aimed at recruiting teachers.

About half the board members were ready to approve the contract that night, but others claimed they hadn't had enough time or done enough research to feel prepared to vote. The special session was called in order to address the postponement.

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At right, Hamilton County School Board Chairman Joe Wingate changes seats with Dr. Steve Highlander following his appointment as the new chairman during the Hamilton County School Board meeting Thursday, September 20, 2018 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The school board names a new chairman and vice-chairman during the meeting.
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Hamilton County School Board member Tucker McClendon asks a question about the adoption of Future Ready 2023 Thursday, September 20, 2018 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thursday was McClendon's and Jenny Hill's first meeting as school board members.

"We wanted to have a full board there for the vote, and there were some circumstances that weren't going to permit all nine board members to be there. I felt it was an important enough thing to vote on to have everyone there," said board Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7.

Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, said he was frustrated that Thursday's meeting was canceled.

"I think that the board wants more answers and we had that opportunity to get more of those tonight," McClendon said. "So I'm frustrated that the meeting was canceled an hour and a half before it was scheduled."

McClendon has some concerns about the contract, which requires a $250,000-per-year commitment from the school district. The $250,000 proposed to pay for the partnership would come from state funding the district has received for its nine priority schools, or the schools that rank in Tennessee's bottom 5 percent.

Regardless, McClendon, who does not represent any of those schools, said the board needed to be sure the commitment — which comes out to about $16,000 per teacher for the 15 planned for the 2019-20 school year — is the best use of those funds.

"It's something we really have to look at as a board if that's how we want to spend that money," he said. "We as a board need to decide if that's the best use of our state money."

In 2017-18, the district received $670,384 in priority school funds from the Tennessee Department of Education, and it is up for part of another $10 million available for the 2018-19 school year.

Teach for America, which has had sites in Memphis and Nashville for more than a decade, estimates its first-year expenses to be around $437,434 for fiscal year 2019, according to a document sent to school board members. Estimated annual expenses would increase to more than $759,629 by year five, fiscal year 2023. Hamilton County would not commit more than $250,000, though.

In the memorandum of understanding presented at the board's Oct. 18 meeting, the organization said it planned on recruiting a first corps of 15 teachers, hopefully increasing that number each year.

Teach for America-Nashville's executive director and point person for the Chattanooga expansion Ben Schumacher previously told the Times Free Press that the organization's "hope right now is over five years we would be able to build a network of TFA alumni and corp members that are at least 100 large [in Chattanooga]."

Hamilton County school board members who have been wary of the partnership cite the cost as well as turnover and retention rates. Teach for America corps members commit to teaching for two years, and 71 percent of TFA-Nashville teachers were still in their classes — typically in high-poverty and low-performing schools — for a third year. In Memphis, 82 percent stayed for a third year.

Hamilton County has historically struggled with supporting new teachers — 74 percent of first-year teachers stayed for a second year at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. The district's third-year retention rate was not available Thursday evening.

This year, the district has 205 new teachers, with more than 70 of them concentrated in the 12 Opportunity Zone schools.

Proponents note that 91 percent of Teach for America corps members return for a second year and the organization continues to provide added support, training and professional development for beginning teachers.

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Board chairman Steve Highlander, right, speaks next to schools superintendent Bryan Johnson amid a discussion about equity in the school system during a Hamilton County Board of Education work session on Thursday, June 21, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Some board members have emphasized that the process of the proposal itself has been frustrating. The board has been criticized for lack of action since the agreement was available to the public for a week before its Oct. 18 meeting, but some board members maintain district officials have been leading the discussion and leaving board members uninformed.

"I have some concerns about the way it's been dealt with here," said board member Steve Highlander, of District 9. "I am a little concerned about some of the aspects of the contract, but I'll wait for the work session to go through it."

At last week's board meeting, board member Joe Smith, of District 3, was worried a delayed vote would lead the district to miss out on exceptional teachers.

"Let's don't kick this can down the road," he said.

Wingate said his hope was the board would find time in the next week to meet.

"We are going to try find some days. We don't want to drag it out anymore," he said.

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

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