Two Hamilton County school board members squared off Thursday night over a proposed policy change requiring the district to vet professional development presentations from "out-of-town" presenters.
District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman asked school board attorney Scott Bennett about the implications of such a policy at the end of the board's August meeting, which primarily focused on Hamilton County Schools' newly released 2019 TNReady results.
But District 5 board member Karitsa Mosley Jones accused Thurman of dancing around the issue with the mysterious presentation that had spurred the policy change.
Earlier this month, the district came under fire by some community members after slides including references to race, racism and white privilege were leaked from a teacher training by motivational speaker, author and former NFL football player Robert Jackson at the district's third annual Urban Education Institute.
The presentation focused on implicit, or unconscious, biases and how bias could affect a teacher's classroom, but some have said the topics were inappropriate and that taxpayer dollars should not be used for such trainings.
Others have defended the need for conversations about race and equity, especially for teachers who work in schools that have large populations of students of color and students from low-income families.
"When we have situations of what we're speaking of, what we're dancing around, you have to think about what the content of that presentation was. ... Everybody in that room knew what that presentation was about," Jones said. "And I am a taxpayer of Hamilton County and I don't need a copy of that presentation to know that was an implicit bias training. ... So I think before we dance around the issue, a professional came in and made presentation of which they've made presentations around the country. ... We're not misteaching anybody anything and it's just frustrating because in 2019 we should not be sitting on this dais talking about this or dancing around a policy for something like this."
Thurman fired back at Jones.
"I don't dance," Thurman said. "I've been on the TV, I've been on the radio, I've been on the newspaper, I don't dance. I don't weasel around things like this."
Thurman has vocally questioned the appropriateness of Jackson's presentation and has called on Superintendent Bryan Johnson to respond. She said the policy she hopes to develop would allow for the district to screen and vet presentations.
"This is not my school board. This was singling out a group of people, to single out a group of people. ... I know a lot of people are upset about this and I want to make sure that this doesn't happen again," she said.
The district's current contract provided to presenters allows for it to videotape or otherwise record presentations, according to Bennett, but in recent weeks the district has had some contractors who have scratched out the requirement or were opposed to it.
Jones said such a requirement should be a procedure and not a policy and might limit opportunities for the district.
"I do want to say that we have to be careful when implementing policies based on certain situations. Our goal is trying to expose our professionals to the best professional development that we can," she said.
District 6 board member Jenny Hill also cautioned her colleagues to be intentional if they decided to move forward with drafting a policy.
"If we choose to move forward with drafting a policy, we really need to consider the intent of the policy," Hill said. "If the intent of the policy is for our taxpayers to know what we're doing, then we need to require it for all presenters."
All board policies are required to have input by the policy committee, the board and district administration and must receive a vote in favor from the majority of the board on first or second reading to be implemented.
As for Jackson's presentation, since the event on Aug. 2 some school board members and the Times Free Press requested copies of the presentation. Tim Hensley, spokesman for the district, said in an email that the district and board members do not have a copy of the presentation because it is "the intellectual property of the presenter. He did not leave a copy after the presentation."
Bennett has been working with Jackson to potentially obtain a copy of the presentation. As of this week, Jackson had not yet been paid for his appearance.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.