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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, second from right, speaks during a Hamilton County school board and Hamilton County Commission joint meeting Monday, December 9, 2019 at Red Bank Middle School in Red Bank, Tennessee. The meeting was held ahead of the 2020 budget cycle.

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Hamilton County school board, commission meeting

It was a wonderful sight.

Nine Hamilton County commissioners and nine school board members — with Mayor Jim Coppinger and Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson in the middle — sat around a common table one evening at Red Bank Middle School.

It had a Camp David feeling. The two bodies, often at odds over public education, rarely, if ever, meet face to face. This was the first of the peace accords. Coppinger set the tone.

"We're all on the same team here," the mayor said.

I'm really glad they met together, but I can't celebrate too much.

Doing so only creates an embarrassingly low standard. Face-to-face meetings? That's not red-letter stuff.

Our elected representatives should routinely sit down together.

The night lasted 90 minutes.

A lot was said.

A lot wasn't.

See for yourself; you can watch a YouTube video of the meeting online with this column. (It had 45 views on Friday afternoon.)

Here are a few memorable moments:

— Early in the night, District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd asked Johnson a fair question:

How many students can read on a third grade level?

Johnson couldn't really answer, talking around the question instead of straight at it.

"I just want that number," Boyd said. "I don't want it clouded with other stuff."

Johnson invited Shannon Moody, the county's director of research, up to the mic, but she didn't directly answer Boyd, either.

Why?

"Measuring reading is complex," Moody told me later.

Reading is different from literacy. Reading can be measured by whether or not a student can decode and sound out certain words. It's the first floor of instruction. Literacy? It's deeper understanding. Context. Comparison. Analysis. We all can read Shakespeare. But can we understand him?

Nearly 80% of county third graders were considered "low risk," Moody said.

Simply put: they can read.

Yet less than 40% met state standards in literacy. Meaning? They can read, but need to work on understanding and deep comprehension.

"In Hamilton County, we know that our students can read," Moody said.

So there isn't a quick number.

This short exchange with Boyd felt like a microcosm of the larger central office-commission relationship.

The divide.

An unfulfilled request.

The lack of clarity.

And, hopefully, the possibility of understanding. (Ask Moody. She's good at explaining complex numbers.)

— At one point, school board member Rhonda Thurman said early childhood reading matters most.

"Concentrate all of our efforts on reading, K-3," she said. "Without reading, nothing else really matters."

District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston agreed.

"That's the most important thing we can do," he said.

I wondered if teachers in the audience agreed, so I texted Kendra Young, the wise and eloquent East Hamilton teacher and Hamilton United leader who helped organize the recent Teacher Town Hall.

"What would you say is most important?" I asked.

"For K-3? Social-emotional development. No contest," she said. "Our kids need to learn how to communicate, how to think, how to interact with content and each other."

Young says students today are stressed at unimaginable levels.

"Beyond what any rational human would think was even possible," she said.

Family issues. (Opioids and alcoholism are rampant, she said.)

Depression and anxiety.

Out-of-reach state standards that are developmentally inappropriate.

"We're asking their brains to do things they're not ready to do," she said. "The result is increased stress and anxiety. When a child is stressed out, they act out. It's a cycle."

Again, this tiny moment reflected so much.

In order to gain clear understanding, we, especially the commissioners, must hear the voices of our public school teachers.

"Maybe they'll start to question what else they don't understand about education and educators," Young said.

— During the night, someone brought up the goal of reaching an 85% literacy rate.

Greg Martin, District 3 county commissioner and former school board member, disagreed.

"I don't think we'll ever get to 85 [percent]," he said.

Why not?

"Not everybody's motivated to learn," he said. "Not everybody is motivated to have their children to learn."

In the crowd, several people gasped.

In one comment, Martin seemed to scapegoat parents and children for low reading scores.

Martin revealed a ho-hum, we'll-never-get-there attitude toward childhood literacy.

Martin did what a good classroom teacher knows never to do: shame and embarrass.

— Despite that, much of the evening was positive.

"What can we — the superintendent and the board — do to earn more trust from you?" school board member Steve Highlander asked.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson tried to lead a discussion on shared priorities. Coppinger kept things positive. Thurman articulated the need for vocational schools. Others agreed and also said:

We must continue to meet.

"What we're doing here is exactly the step in the right direction," said District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter. "During budget season, it doesn't need to be us and you guys over there."

David Cook can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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