Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod is proposing Chattanooga consider reclaiming control of its schools, now operated by Hamilton County.
During a meeting on Tuesday, Coonrod proposed that the Chattanooga City Council do a study through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on the potential impact of the city regaining control of its schools.
"I would like to propose to our council that we submit to UTC to research what it looks like to get our city schools back," Coonrod said. "Since the merger of 1995, we've consistently had the same recurring issues and complaints about our inner-city schools, and it just hasn't gotten better since the merger."
She said she recognizes some improvement in the district overall but wants to ensure inner-city students are receiving proper care.
"I do understand like our test scores and everything are looking good. You know, there's been some kind of improvement," she said. "But the question for me is, you know, our inner-city, the most at risk, vulnerable, target people — like if we're not getting the resources and tools for them to be successful, I would like for us to research what that looks like."
The city and county schools opened as one consolidated district — now operated by the Hamilton County Department of Education — in 1997 after three years of research, discussion and a 1994 referendum, which won 22,694 to 19,044.
A spokesperson for Mayor Tim Kelly, who repeatedly called education his top priority during his campaign, said the mayor's office still supports a partnership with the county but that "all options are on the table."
"Mayor Kelly will always be a strong advocate for full and effective resourcing of public education. He's consistently believed the county should take a serious look at school funding levels and expects county leadership to fulfill its role in this respect. Mayor Kelly has also said that all options are on the table so that every child has access to quality learning," spokesperson Mary Beth Ikard told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.
"His administration is currently focused on building strong partnerships with Hamilton County Schools ... to ensure the city has a seat at the table and skin in the game when it comes to caring for students enrolled within city limits," Ikard said in an email. "The mayor's proposed budget has backed up that commitment with significant new investment in these programs, the first since the merger. We remain optimistic that partnership with the county and the mayor's advocacy can make progress for the development of our young people."
Last month, Kelly announced he would fund staffers at Brainerd High School, Calvin Donaldson Elementary School, Dalewood Middle School, Hardy Elementary School, Orchard Knob Elementary School, Orchard Knob Middle School and Woodmore Elementary School to offer wraparound services to students and families.
The more-than-$700,000 investment for the program in the mayor's current proposed budget will be the first such investment since the schools merged in 1997.
Council Chairman Chip Henderson told Coonrod that he thought the council should consider using UTC to study consolidating the two governments.
"I would like to have a conversation, I think a little bit more extensively, with this council about doing some research with UTC. It would somewhat be in regard to this," he said after Coonrod's pitch. "I think it would look more like what consolidated governments might look like, which will accomplish I think maybe the same purpose."
Henderson told the Times Free Press that he thinks the two governments could save money by combining services.
"I think at some point, you know, we are going to have to take a look at that from a fiscal standpoint, financially, to see if the two governments operate more efficiently," he said of Hamilton County and Chattanooga.
"I just have to believe there's some redundancy."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.