A robocall accusing the Hamilton County Schools system of having a "liberal agenda" is concerning community members as the controversy surrounding a teacher training on race continues to grow.
Last week, concerned educators took to social media with clips of automated messages via phone call and text message that some had received that accuse the school district of wasting taxpayer money on a political agenda.
An anonymous survey has also been circulated that gauges opinions on topics such as UnifiEd, the controversial education advocacy nonprofit, and a recent presentation to Opportunity Zone teachers that included conversations about race, white privilege and student trauma.
Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the local teachers union, the Hamilton County Education Association, said she did not receive the call herself but a retired teacher sent her a clip. She said the woman was very concerned about the message, and both characterized it as an attack on the school system.
"She sent me the recording and was very upset about it," Omarkhail said. "It's disruptive to our community to continue this, especially when we had such great scores and celebrations last week. For an attack on our schools and our school systems to be happening is wrong. It's like really, you want to burst our bubble when we are trying to celebrate some great things that are happening in our schools?"
It's unknown who commissioned the call or the survey. In the automated message obtained by the Times Free Press, a woman who identified herself as "a concerned parent of a fifth grader in the Hamilton County Public School system."
The message continues by accusing the school district of "singling out white teachers" and prompts the receiver to call Superintendent Bryan Johnson and tell him how to use tax dollars.
"School Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson is using our tax dollars to push a liberal agenda in K-12 public schools through white privilege training. Two lessons school system officials tried to impart to teachers were that people of color cannot be racist because they lack the institutional power to adversely affect white lives. And secondly, when minorities express or practice prejudice against whites, they are not racist. Dr. Johnson and members of the radically liberal school board are singling out white teachers who give their all to less fortunate students of all races and causing mistrust and confusion to vulnerable minds," the message said.
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.
The anonymous survey also asks participants how they feel about such presentations.
"Are you aware of the controversy involving the presentation to Hamilton County Opportunity Zone teachers that referred to "white privilege?" and "Do you think this type of training on race helps students or hurts students?" are two questions asked in the 26-question survey.
It's unknown who commissioned the survey, though some have accused Hamilton Flourishing, a new conservative political organization, of being behind the messages. Patrick Hampton, vice president of communications and community engagement for the organization, posted photos of the slides online that originally went viral.
But Doug Daugherty, president of Hamilton Flourishing, said the organization is not behind the calls or the survey. He said he suspected they were from outside of Hamilton County and said he had only seen photos of the survey posted on Facebook.
"We have nothing to do with the robocalls or the survey, didn't sponsor them, suggest them to anyone, pay for them," he said.
Daugherty did say that the organization has gotten calls from people "around the country" as well as heard from teachers in Hamilton County since Jackson's Aug. 2 presentation.
Though Daugherty said the organization did not have an official stance on the presentation or the controversy, he did say he believed the superintendent should release Jackson's slides, which would "clear up whether or not they were taken out of context."
School board members and the Times Free Press have requested copies of Jackson's presentation, but the requests have been denied.
Tim Hensley, spokesman for the district, said in an email on Aug. 5 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."
District 4 school board member Tiffanie Robinson, who represents several Opportunity Zone schools, said she has received more than 70 calls and messages in response to the robocalls.
"It's incredibly disheartening," Robinson said. "Now we as a school district are doing literally what the public wants us to do, and a small subset of the population is twisting everything that we are doing. It feels very targeted and I don't know what to make of it. It definitely feels like an attack."
At an Aug. 15 school board meeting, board members Rhonda Thurman and Karitsa Mosley Jones butted heads over the controversy.
Thurman, of District 1, urged the board to introduce a policy on vetting of outside presentations and guest speakers, but Mosley Jones accused her of being reactionary and of "dancing around" the issue.
"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, of District 5, 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.
Johnson said he addressed the presentation in an Aug. 6 "welcome back" video before students returned to school and said he doesn't intend to keep rehashing the issue of Jackson's presentation.
He did say the district would do a better job of reviewing presentations ahead of professional development sessions in the future, but he emphasized that his and the district's only agenda "is children."
"In order to serve all children you have to understand all childrens' needs and you have to understand also the perspectives that you could have in the classroom," Johnson told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.
"We will absolutely do a better job of reviewing external presenters' presentations, but I do hate in a moment when we should be conversing about the gains that our teachers and students and staff have made we are talking about this. Our only agenda is children. Our only agenda will remain children."
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke also took to social media Tuesday, blasting the calls.
"This is what's wrong with politics. Days after Hamilton County Schools reports all top scores for the first time, a group is targeting it with accusations of a "liberal agenda." Let's do what works: Put partisanship and sloganeering aside & support progress for kids," Berke said in a Facebook post.
UnifiEd also posted on Facebook on Tuesday, calling the calls "underhanded tactics."
"These underhanded tactics show just how far opponents of public education will go to maintain the status quo," the post read.
The Times Free Press has been unable to contact or verify the identity of Lydia Smite.
As for Jackson, as of Aug. 20 he has still not been paid for his appearance at the Urban Education Institute, despite contrary reports from other media outlets. Hamilton County Schools Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg confirmed that Jackson's contract with the district was for $5,000, but said Jackson has not submitted an invoice and the district had not issued payment as of Tuesday.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.