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Hamilton County School Board candidates Marco Perez and Tom Decosimo drew notable differences in opinion about funding, equity and other issues during Monday night's virtual debate hosted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Chattanooga 2.0 and WRCB in the race to fill the District 2 seat being vacated by incumbent Kathy Lennon.

Perez, a local business owner/consultant, focused on his plans to provide equal opportunities to all students and his commitment to the district as a parent of students currently enrolled in local public schools.

His opponent, businessman and civic leader Decosimo, recalled his time as a student at Signal Mountain Junior High and emphasized his beliefs in promoting literacy rates, supporting fiscally conservative spending measures and giving teachers and principals more autonomy in decision making.

During the debate, both candidates were asked a series of questions pertaining to the district's COVID-19 responses, budgetary concerns, equity and parental engagement.

 

Testing

The candidates were asked about standardized testing in the new school year, after such testing was waived after schools closed in the spring because of the pandemic.

Decosimo said he hoped the district would put more resources toward literacy, rather than focusing on testing measures.

"Let's really focus on just getting the children ready to read," he said. "Obviously testing's important, but we're in very tricky water here. I think we've got to really learn the basics and make sure these children are reading. Testing takes a lot of time and a lot of stress. Let's add as little stress as possible."

Perez agreed testing takes a lot of resources, but said some assessment testing would be necessary to continue to identify where more support and accountability are needed.

"I don't think there's a teacher or a parent who appreciates the amount of time that testing consumes [of] our students' progress and time," he said, "but we do understand the value of being able to measure where we are and the benchmarks that it produces for us."

 

Equity

In addition to testing, multiple questions were raised also about educational equity in the district.

Decosimo said while he believes in the "fundamental right for every child to have a foundational education," he opposes the use of the word equity and its connotations.

"Equity is a bit of a loaded word," he said. "I wish we didn't use it. It's kind of a negative to me; it's a negative to a lot of people."

In contrast, Perez emphasized that equity should be a priority and efforts should be made to mitigate socioeconomic achievement gaps in the county.

"I want every one of our students have an opportunity for an excellent education, regardless of where they live," Perez said. "I want them to be able to reach for the stars and I want to know that our system and our schools will provide every opportunity for them to do that."

 

Leadership

Another notable gap in opinion between the candidates came from their thoughts on current leadership in the district.

When asked to give Superintendent Bryan Johnson a letter grade, Perez gave him an A, citing his communication skills, improvements in the district and Johnson's title as the Southeast Tennessee Superintendent of the Year.

"I'm very satisfiedso now my job as a school board member is to continue to hold him accountable to those results, and I'll continue to do that," Perez said.

Decosimo gave him a B, saying that while the superintendent had done some good work, he wasn't pleased with his handling of securing a building to rehome the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, one of many schools in the district in need of renovation or replacement, according to a facility report that recommended $891 million in construction and repairs for the county.

(READ MORE: Final Hamilton County School Facilities report recommends three-part, $891 million plan)

"I'm not at all pleased with this building at Northgate," Decosimo said of a proposal to purchase former stores at the mall to house CSLA. "I just don't quite understand that, but you know, I think there's a lack of leadership and maybe some maturity."

 

Funding

Most notably in terms of leadership, the pair had differing opinions when it came to addressing the topic of districtwide funding and the budget.

Decosimo expressed his belief that the district was top-heavy and needed to look into reallocating administrative funds in a more efficient way before seeking additional money.

"Let's really look at how much we're spending in the central office," he said. "I want to reallocate [funds] to making sure our teachers are properly paid, making sure that our teachers have what they need in the classrooms, making sure that our schools are in good shape."

In opposition, Perez said that the current distribution of resources to administrative functions was producing results. He also listed teachers, transportation and infrastructure as his top priorities for the district's budget.

When asked about the proposed tax hike to provide more funding to schools voted down last year by the county commission, Perez said if schools are to be a priority, investments must be made locally, as well as on a state and national level, especially in light of COVID-19.

"If we want our arts in the schools, if we want languages, if we want multiple of these opportunities, if we want more support staff and resources to be able to help our students. at the end of the day, everything we do costs money," he said. "It will be up to the people. This is what taxpayers get to do. They get to ensure that we're heading in the direction that is encouraging to them and supportive to them."

Decosimo mentioned that teachers in Hamilton County already get paid more than counterparts in some surrounding areas. Perez expressed a need for competitive pay in order to better recruit and retain employees.

 

Protests

Those asking questions also inquired about Chattanooga student protests held earlier this year as part of a larger conversation about police brutality and racial inequity after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The two candidates made headlines in June after Decosimo went to social media to denounce Lennon's promotion of the student march in Chattanooga. While many took his opposition to be against the students, he later clarified that rather than the event, he disliked the focus on police brutality and the imagery that was shared to promote the event.

"These young adults that are protesting, it's wonderful for them to do that," he said. "But we've got to be careful because there's an element that is creeping into these protests that quite frankly is very dangerous."

Perez, who attended the march with his daughter, said he was grateful to see students stand against what they thought was wrong.

"It was the most respectful protest that I've ever participated in or observed," he said during the debate. "The students in Hamilton County were very clear about their about their concerns. They were very clear about some of the paths that they see our community going that they are not longer finding acceptable. They want to see changes in racial and social injustices"

 

The last word

In their closing statements, both candidates were asked why they should be voted into the office over their opponent.

Perez said he hopes that all students would be able to experience the education his daughters have received at Signal Mountain Middle/High School, a top-performing school in the district, and advocated for teachers and equal opportunities for students in his final words.

"There's growth and opportunity in each one of those schools, and I think we need to make sure that every one of our students has an opportunity for an excellent education regardless of where they are," he said. "We need to support every one of our teachers. They need to know that we value them as professionals and that we treat them as experts in their field."

In Decosimo's final remarks, he said he wished his children had had the opportunity to attend the school that Perez's children go to, and then took time to talk about the accomplishments of his children who spent seven years in public schools before transitioning to private education.

He finished by reminding the audience of his experience as a business owner and accountant and expressed his wish to provide the same for the school district.

"I think we can do the same for public school system," he said, "and I'm ready to do it, and I'm ready to make our schools a spotlight of the South."

District 2 is home to eight schools, including Alpine Crest Elementary, Nolan Elementary School, Red Bank Elementary School, Red Bank High School, Red Bank Middle School, Rivermont Elementary School, Signal Mountain Middle/High School and Thrasher Elementary School.

District 2 constituents will be able to vote for their choice to fill the empty seat during the primaries on Aug. 6, or during early voting that takes place July 17-Aug. 1.

Contact Tierra Hayes at tierrathejournalist@gmail.com.

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