The Hamilton County Commission and Board of Education gathered Monday to discuss priorities, dodging budget discussions after a fiery year of funding debates.
At the meeting, called by county Mayor Jim Coppinger and Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, all 18 members of the two bodies gathered to discuss the future of the school district and reshape the narrative around education in the county.
"I think we're all on the same team here in Hamilton County. We have the same goal to try and be positive about our schools and to push our schools in positive directions," Coppinger said in his opening remarks, asking for the school board to elaborate on its priorities and how the commission could help achieve them. "This could be the beginning of us trying to create and cultivate a culture out there where people are starting to say positive things about our schools."
In large part, the commission and school board stayed the course — avoiding budget talks as prompted by Coppinger, discussing the importance of increasing kindergarten through third grade literacy rates, maintaining and supporting teachers and keeping a similarly open dialogue as the fiscal year 2021 budget is formed in the spring, touching on facilities improvements and mental health resources in schools.
Though Johnson later told the Times Free Press he felt that the meeting got hung up on literacy, the conversation highlighted the need for communication between the two bodies, he said.
Asked about priorities, several members of both bodies agreed improving Hamilton County's historically dismal literacy rates — only about 36 percent of third graders tested proficient on state assessments the last school year — is an utmost priority.
"I just want to say that I think it's the most important thing we can do to help our school system, to improve literacy before third grade," District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston said. "That was my problem, and I still have a problem with reading today because I didn't get it before I left third grade. I think that's going to improve our school system more than anything."
Board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, also asked commissioners point blank what their priorities were and what the school board could do to earn the commission's trust.
District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter said that continuing conversations like Monday evening's was most important going forward.
"What we are doing here is exactly the step in the right direction," she said. "Making sure this is intentional and this does not stop. Making sure we leave here planning when is the next time we're going to meet."
While last week's community forums to discuss the staggering $1.36 billion in deferred maintenance unveiled in the July preliminary facilities report were in the forefront of many school board members' minds, the issue was largely left out of Monday's discussion.
After the meeting, Coppinger said he was largely pleased with the meeting, thanking each member for not bringing up money, but said that it left something to be desired.
"I just wish we had discussed more action," he said. "It was a good meeting with important discussion on a lot of big issues, but we never really got into an action plan. It was a lot in an hour and a half, I just would have liked to see more of a plan come of it."
Coppinger said he doesn't like to have "meetings for meeting's sake," but would discuss future meetings, specifically in the spring near budget time, with the chairmen of both bodies.
Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks, of District 1, said he would support another meeting, adding that "this was exactly the kind of discussion we needed to have to get the ball rolling and I look forward to more of this kind of productive conversation going forward."
Johnson also agreed the conversation was productive, and he anticipates the need for more conversations.
"I think there are more conversations to be had," he said. "More about capital will be forthcoming and I think there will be more [conversations] to be had about safety. All these are things that we'll need to talk about."
One attendee, John DeVore, a teacher at Hixson Middle School, called the meeting "a dog and pony show," though.
"I would have preferred they talk about money and funding, and the conversations they don't want to have," DeVore, one of the organizers behind last month's Teacher Town Hall, said.
Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, which is the teachers' union, agreed with DeVore and said conversations about funding need to happen but that the bodies laid the foundation Monday night.
"For them to have an initial meeting and start to have a conversation so they can understand each other is a success," Omarkhail said. "We can't have a dialogue until there is common ground. ... The conversation of money has to happen at some point and the fact that they said, 'Let's get together during budget season' is a huge step that hasn't happened before."
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