Candidates for Hamilton County mayor made it clear building up schools and focusing on students are cornerstone aspects of their policy priorities at the first debate of the race.
Whether it was education itself, public safety or economic development, the three Republicans during the hour-long debate hosted by the Chattanooga-based conservative organization Hamilton Flourishing on Monday came back to one theme: The next mayor needs to prioritize revitalizing the county's education system to make Hamilton a more safe, economically viable place to live for residents.
"If we're going to talk about expanding [pre-K funding] countywide, that's going to require a tax increase much like the money as a city taxpayer I'm paying right now," said Weston Wamp, of Chattanooga, when asked about more funding to improve literacy rates.
While he agreed literacy efforts would be worth considering if more resources were available without a tax increase, he said the current model surrounding literacy rates is "completely broken," and that if a child can't read at the proper level, it may mean the traditional school model isn't right for them and they should take advantage of vocational programs that would prepare them to take careers such as welding.
Hamilton County Commission chair Sabrena Smedley, of Ooltewah, who throughout the debate emphasized she was the only candidate with government experience, argued that if a child can't read properly, they're already at a disadvantage.
"If they can't read, they can't do anything," Smedley said. "We've got to do a better job here and again, as the next county mayor, I will partner with the city mayor and our superintendents to make sure that we move the dial on early childhood development and literacy. If we can increase [literacy rates] from 30% to 50%, it will transform this community."
Matt Hullander, R,-Chattanooga, who has emphasized his experience as a businessman throughout his campaign, also spoke of the importance of vocational education.
But he also voiced his support for performance-based pay for teachers.
"So who's doing the best job and how can we pay them the most money to educate the children?" Hullander said.
Where Hamilton County Mayor candidates stand with fundraising as of end of 2021
— Matt Hullander, R: Raised $255,977; $208,268 cash on hand.
— Sabrena Smedley, R: Raised $202,260; $201,808 cash on hand.
— Weston Wamp, R: Raised $232,321; $214,390 cash on hand.
Candidates were also asked about how to bolster public safety in the county, which has been one of the most talked about issues in the race.
Wamp, acknowledging that investing in public safety is important and they all support law enforcement, again steered the conversation toward education.
"Over the long term, if we're ever going to get ahead and intervene in our middle schools, where so often in our inner-city communities young men become hopeless, they haven't had great examples in their lives," Wamp said.
Smedley and Hullander both took the opportunity to emphasize in greater detail their support for law enforcement, with Smedley saying she was the only "pro-law enforcement candidate" who had legislative experience around the issue.
Smedley also said that if elected, she would fight for a dedicated gang task force composed of local, state and federal agencies to identify gangs and run them out of the county.
"We have a gang problem here in Hamilton County, and it's not exclusive to the city limits. And anyone who says otherwise has got their heads in the sand," she said.
Hullander said guns are not the issue with gang violence, but rather, childhood trauma that leads kids down that path and that he believes in the Second Amendment as a gun owner himself.
"It's typically because there's some sort of trauma for those children when they grow up, that they want to feel like they're part of something," he said.
With all three candidates having business experience, economic development became a hot topic of discussion during the debate.
Education also resurfaced, particularly support for vocational schools as a way to build up the local workforce.
Hullander referenced employers such as Miller Industries and Volkswagen as having a great reputation in the community. But they also have workforce issues.
"They do have an issue with workforce, which goes back to trade school and providing workforce from within our county," he said.
Wamp, noting poor school performance around downtown Chattanooga, said the city has done a good job of bringing businesses to the city and marketing the city itself. But that comes with an unfortunate reality, he said.
"If you look at the performance of public education in proximity to downtown Chattanooga, and you can go quite a ways out, it is a failing picture. So often you end up losing major job recruitment opportunities to areas in the region with better public school systems," Wamp said.
Smedley again cited her tenure in office, noting the county's AAA bond rating and its ability to create thousands of jobs.
She also said she would create a workforce development task force composed of local business leaders and that the county is "missing the mark" when it comes to workforce development in areas such as information technology.
"We don't have enough students going into computer science," she said. "We've actually lost a couple of businesses."
In response to Smedley's focus on IT, Wamp said he would be formally announcing a "future-ready institute" in conjunction with U.S. Express to train individuals for local IT companies, which has been months in the planning after he gathered Chattanooga State Community College with local CEOs of logistics companies.
The primary election will take place May 3.