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During the final Hamilton County school board debate on Wednesday evening, 16-year incumbent Rhonda Thurman and lifelong resident Stephen Vickers demonstrated strong commitments to the Soddy-Daisy community with contrasting approaches on how to advocate for that community and how schools should respond to COVID-19.

Thurman, first elected to the board in 2004, leaned heavily into her extensive experience there and said that her track record of being fiscally conservative has helped the district be more efficient and effective in how it spends money.

"The citizens, students and taxpayers of District 1 know I have fought for fiscal accountability," she said. "They know I have fought for facilities and student opportunities. They know I'm not afraid to voice my opinion. They know I will continue to be the voice of reason for the hard working people in District 1."

Born and raised in Soddy-Daisy, Vickers said his commitment is rooted in not only being a product of the local public school system, but in raising a child who currently attends Soddy-Daisy Middle School.

"I, unlike my opponent, she is a 16-year incumbent career politician at this point, I'm a newcomer. I have to look at things from a unique perspective," he said. "We have to look at things from a holistic perspective, both on the human side and the data side. That is why I'm running for the District 1 school board."

 

Advocacy approach

Thurman said that she was not afraid to voice her opinion and that sometimes she votes against the majority during board meetings to allow for more questions and information for the public on topics that would have gone without discussion had a vote been unanimous.

"I do not mind standing alone as long as I'm standing in the right place," she said. "And a lot of times I feel like I've been standing in the right place."

Being outspoken is how Thurman said she is able to properly prioritize the needs of District 1.

"There are nine districts. You're fighting for that money, and so you have to make your case," she said. "I don't care if I'm a dissenting voice. I will stand up and do what I think is right. I'm not here to go along to get along."

On the other hand, Vickers promoted a more collaborative approach to governing on the school board to move not only District 1, but the entire school system forward.

"By standing alone, you don't work with others," he said. "We have to — have to — work together, not alone, to move us forward. We've got those missed opportunities that we can capitalize on."

District COVID-19 plans

When asked about their thoughts on the district's COVID-19 response, both candidates acknowledged the hard work put in by the district task force for reopening schools during unprecedented times.

Since the district task force presented the reopening framework to the board, Thurman has proven to be critical of the inclusion of requiring masks for all students as they are at lower risk for COVID-19. She said that the requirement would turn teachers into "mask police."

"I don't think that it's something they should have to do, to add to their tasks that they have to do every day," she said. "I think it's just going be way too bothersome for them"

Thurman also raised concerns during the debate about the district's four-phase reopening plan, which has a ladder of school responses that can be adjusted based on pandemic data in Hamilton County. The phases range from all-online education when the pandemic is most severe to full service in-person education when case counts are under control. In between are hybrid options, including schedules that have students attend two days a week in person.

Thurman said the plan would be difficult for working parents.

"That's something we have to keep in mind because I think we're gonna start going back for a couple of weeks. These unemployment checks are going to be cut out so everybody's gonna have to be going back to work," she said.

As a parent, Vickers appeared to be more open to the district's approach.

"They do have a great plan. It is very lenient and flexible and gives us several different options," he said. "I'm in the same situation as you. My son is at the middle school. We've had conversations and we talked about what's going to be in our best interests. We have to protect our children. We have to protect our community members, parents, guardians and everyone else."

He also said he believes the plan to be the most thorough of any he had come across in his research.

"What they were able to come up with is one of the most detailed plans that I've seen, and I've looked at all of them across the state of Tennessee," he said. "I've looked at ones from all over. This is the most detailed plan for reentry to our education system."

School funding

In light of COVID-19, both candidates also expressed a need to keep a close eye on the budget.

"In these hard economic times, it is even more important than ever this school system lives within its means. I will continue to keep an eye on the budget to be sure as much money as possible goes into the classrooms," Thurman said.

Vickers held similar sentiments.

"We don't need to raise taxes; we need to balance our budget," he said. "We do not know what's going to happen [with COVID-19]. We have to be able to react to the budget needs. We have to be able to assess the budget. But we also have to be able to react to our allocations that are coming in and be on point with what we're receiving."

Teachers

With a scheduled raise for area teachers cut due to the pandemic, both candidates were asked questions about funding for teachers, as well as best ways to recruit and retain quality employees.

Vickers said in order to hire and keep teachers, the district should be continuously reevaluating the competitiveness of the district in terms of pay and compensation.

"We have to show them respect," he said. "We have to provide them the respect that they deserve as professionals.

"Once you begin the retention efforts of our teachers, then the recruiting effort becomes even easier because good teachers recruit good teachers, and everybody then wants to come here, our test scores go up, and then we have even more, that want to be here."

When asked about teacher raises, Thurman said that in the past teachers had voted to turn down raises in lieu of hiring more support staff, a move that she thought was "crazy," but that if raises were what was wanted, then they should be prioritized in the budget, although she did acknowledge that COVID-19 has complicated things for the time being.

"It would be totally tone deaf to want to raise anyone's salary for any reason at this time when so many people are out of work in so many houses in Hamilton County," she said. "It is just not the time. We need to do what everyone has to do with your home, they need to live within the money they have and try and do the best they can with it."

Also she figured that the district pays about $60,000 on average for new hires between salary and benefits and said teachers are looking for more control in the classroom and more support from administrators, something the district can provide without paying additional money.

And when it came to retention, Thurman suggested that the district begin providing pathways for current administrators to identify and groom teachers with good leadership to later become in-house principals, rather than having to look outside of the district.

She also said that hiring earlier in the year and employing more minority teachers should be a priority.

District 1 is home to eight schools in the Soddy-Daisy area including Allen Elementary School, Daisy Elementary School, North Hamilton County Elementary School, Sale Creek Middle/High School, Sequoyah High School, Soddy-Daisy High School, Soddy-Daisy Middle School and Soddy Elementary School.

District 1 constituents will be able to vote for their choice to re-elect Thurman for her fifth term or to replace her with Vickers 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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