Where were you, Greg Martin?
You're all county commissioners, and last Sunday, you each no-showed one of the most important events of the year. Hamilton County United's teacher town hall was standing-room-only packed, 90 minutes that could have gone another 100; yet of all the statements made, your empty chairs made the loudest.
We face an educational crisis.
Teachers are leaving.
Yet 12 commissioners and school board members were missing from Sunday's town hall.
"We as teachers and our families cannot continue to carry the school district on our backs," Kendra Young, science teacher and event organizer, declared to start the event.
Sure, there were angry folks inside the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center, but the large message was about solutions.
"We ask that all sides commit to specific actions to figure out how to move forward," Young said.
Even if the town hall had criticized you — voting "no" against June's property tax request and, in October, a wheel tax referendum — well, come take your lumps. That's what representatives do. (I wonder if you would have skipped a police officer town hall.)
You're school board members. Where were you?
"I get to school by 6:45 in the morning," one teacher said.
It starts with bus, hallway, cafeteria, some kind of duty. Then, kids pour into her classroom around 7:05, but also later — 7:10, 7:17, 7:21 — and you must record the exact time each student arrives to distinguish who's tardy and who isn't. Then at 7:25, a student needs to go to the bathroom, and at 7:31, another needs to go to his locker while one girl is working on simultaneous equations and another boy is working on fractions while a third starts causing trouble so you keep teaching, which is a catch-all word for disciplining, listening, parenting, educating all while wondering — have they eaten breakfast? Did they get any sleep last night? Then the bell rings and 26 students leave and another 26 students arrive.
Tired? Need some coffee?
"One of highest illnesses in teachers is bladder issues," she said. "You can't go to the bathroom. You can't leave kids by themselves."
Maybe at lunch?
"We usually get about 20 minutes," she said. "I usually don't take lunch. No time."
The day ends. You drive home, a stack of tests to grade in the backseat, and you're worried about your transmission or leaking roof or your daughter's orthodontist bill. Will your paycheck cover it?
"Thirty years ago, I was in another industry, making $65,000," she said. "Now? I make less than I did 30 years ago." (Today, she earns $52,000. With two master's degrees.)
TO GET INVOLVED
Email your Hamilton County commissioners and school board representatives. Attend the joint county commission and board of education meeting at 6 p.m. on Dec. 9 at Red Bank Middle School.
So why teach?
"I love the kids," she said.
One parent — a data analyst — studied the uncompensated time and expenses of 114 teachers during the first three months of 2019.
They provided more than 2,500 hours of unpaid labor.
And spent more than $17,000 of their own money.
Apply this to every teacher across the county? That's more than $2.5 million of uncompensated labor and expenses.
And their representatives don't even show up to a town hall?
"You literally cannot afford to disengage," Young told the crowd. "The time is right now to stand up and use the loudest voice you can. Enough is enough is enough."
Strangely, I wonder if some county leaders don't want a flourishing and empowered public school system. Is it somehow easier to have teachers under their thumb? Is the constant beg for money a soft form of repression and control?
"We can find money for teachers," one friend said afterward. "We should divest in mass incarceration and a broken criminal justice system that some reports indicate costs $1 trillion a year."
While scrutinizing the central office with one hand, the county commission has helped hand out more tax incentives than any other county in the state with the other.
"Our city and county governments abated a total of $26 million in property taxes in fiscal year 2019 the amount abated in Hamilton County due to PILOTs in 2016 was greater than for any other county in Tennessee," writes local activist Helen Burns Sharp.
(To be fair: Boyd, for the criticism his absence has received, is bravely leading efforts to reform part of our local criminal justice system.)
Too many of us have fallen for the Two Old and Dangerous Narratives.
1. The central office is overstaffed.
2. We can't trust them with our money.
Those are narratives, fictions. The reality lies elsewhere.
"Good teachers are leaving," said school board member Tiffanie Robinson. "How can we prevent you from leaving our schools?"
It starts with replacing Old Narratives with New Ones.
1. Without public school teachers, everything falls apart.
2. If we trust them with our own children, we should respect them enough to listen.
Because teacher voices are only growing louder.
"There's an old saying: if you want something done, ask a teacher," Young said. "Well, imagine 2,800 engaged teachers. It would be a wave impossible to ignore."
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.