Correction: This editorial was updated Friday, July 17, at 11:54 a.m. to correctly spell the first name of Stephen Vickers.
Hamilton County Schools have come a long way in the past four years since three of four school board members were voted out in 2016 and a new superintendent with energy and vision was hired.
The district had no where to go but up.
Academic progress wasn't just stagnant, it was continuing to drop. The physically injurious rape of at least one basketball player in the false name of hazing shook the community and school administration. The then-superintendent had resigned under pressure, and an assistant superintendent was the stand-in.
It wasn't, however, just the new school board members who jump-started improvements. It also was a community that became engaged through the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce, Chattanooga 2.0, UnifiEd and panicked parents. Scores are rising, and we have finally obtained a professionally prepared final audit of both deferred maintenance and needed new school construction. That report recommends a three-phase, 10-year $891 million plan to remedy facility needs.
Now it's election time again, and four of our nine nonpartisan school board seats are up for grabs.
Things are better in our schools, but make no mistake: We have a long way to go, and these seats matter. Perhaps now more than ever.
Not only will COVID-19 likely continue to wreak havoc with our jobs, school schedules and lives, but also in recent years, conservative groups — namely Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition — have sprung up to counter any efforts by other groups — especially UnifiEd — to seek equity actions and increased funding for schools through any kind of tax increases.
Election day is Aug. 6, and today is the first day of early voting.
Below, we offer our endorsements.
DISTRICT 1 — Stephen Vickers
It's time for still more new blood and ideas on the school board, and that means we are endorsing Stephen Vickers to replace Rhonda Thurman, who is seeking a fifth term.
Vickers, a data analyst with a child in District 1 schools, calls Thurman, a hair dresser, small business owner and often the contrarian on the board, a "career politician.
"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."
Thurman counters that she is not on the board "to go along to get along," and sometimes she votes against the majority during board meetings just to allow for more questions and information for the public on topics that she says 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 this week in a virtual debate with Vickers sponsored by WRCB-TV, The Chattanooga Times Free Press and Chattanooga 2.0.
Vickers seized the moment — cinching our support for him: "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."
Thurman is a good person and businesswoman who has asked many good questions of this board as District 1's school board representative. At times — and especially in 2016 — she was a voice of reason, demanding the former superintendent's ouster and voting against wasting district money to buy out his contract. She also often provided welcome balance for a board saturated by educators.
But Thurman has had 16 years to bring about the change she often talks about but can't forge a coalition to accomplish. Instead she has gained a reputation, both on the board and in the community, as the "no, no, no" school board member.
We didn't support her four years ago, and we don't think she should get a fifth term this year either.
She says students shouldn't have to wear masks if they return to school, questions why the district must hire principals from outside Hamilton County, questions why the district administrative staff has grown since she joined the board in 2004, and says the recent facilities master plan didn't "make a lick of sense" for her district — never mind that one building has been so infested with snakes that one fell through the ceiling some years back. She also thinks teachers would rather be trusted to manage their classrooms than receive raises.
We believe she's out of touch, not only with her district — which includes 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 — but with parents and teachers in all of the county.
District 2 — Marco Perez
The differences among candidates may be sharpest in this district, which includes Alpine Crest Elementary School, Nolan Elementary School, Red Bank Elementary School, Red Bank High School, Red Bank Middle School, Rivermont Elementary School, Signal Mountain Middle/High School and Thrasher Elementary School.
It also is the district where politics and culture raise their heads highest.
Marco Perez, a local business owner/consultant, is focused on providing equal opportunities and equity to all students, and he is the clear best choice to fill the seat being vacated by Kathy Lennon.
Tom Decosimo, an accountant, businessman and co-founder of both of the conservative groups, Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition, talks most of supporting "fiscally conservative spending measures" and giving teachers and principals more autonomy in decision-making. He calls equity "a loaded word" and says "I wish we didn't use it. It's kind of a negative to me. It's a negative to a lot of people."
This comes from the same guy who in June criticized "the strident attitude" of students who walked peacefully across the Walnut Street Bridge to protest the Minneapolis death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. Decosimo said the image of a clenched fist in the organizers' flier advertising the protest "screamed violence" and hate. Never mind that on that flier, a banner with the words "Silent & Nonviolent" anchored the stylized fist. He criticized it again this week in a virtual debate with Perez, saying "there's an element that is creeping into these protests that quite frankly is very dangerous."
Perez, on the other hand, said he attended the march with his daughter.
"It was the most respectful protest that I've ever participated in or observed," he said. "The students in Hamilton County were very clear about their concerns. They were very clear about some of the paths that they see our community going that they are no longer finding acceptable. They want to see changes in racial and social injustices."
Funding, too, is an especially wide gap between these two candidates.
Decosimo pulled on the tired string that the district's central office is "top heavy" and money there should be reallocated "to making sure our teachers are properly paid," supplied and have classrooms in good shape. But when asked about a proposed tax increase rejected last year by the County Commission, he said teachers here already get paid more than their counterparts in surrounding areas.
Perez said competitive teacher pay is a must to recruit and retain the best instructors.
"If we want arts in the schools, if we want languages, if we want multiple of these opportunities, if we want more support staff and resources to be able to help our students, at the end of the day, everything we do costs money," he said. "It will be up to the people. This is what taxpayers get to do. They get to ensure that we're heading in the direction."
Perez is the clear choice in this district. For far too long, we've had more than enough of candidates who've patronized private schools and been afraid of equity and afraid of letting taxpayers decide what's best for public schools.
District 7 — Joe Wingate
Incumbent Joe Wingate, a newcomer in 2016 and the current board chairman, deserves a second term on the school board.
Challenged by Debbi Meyers, who has former experience in human resources and has served as a mediator for the state Supreme Court, Wingate is a career educator who sought a seat on the board because he was worried for his children's education in the system.
"I was not happy in the least with where we were," he said. Now four years later he believes — rightly — that important strides have been made. He wants to continue with positive changes he has helped bring, including countywide gains in academic growth and achievement and a superintendent judged top in his field statewide.
But Meyers told debate viewers Tuesday that she is running for election because she found faults in Wingate's governance. She said she hopes to better represent the conservative voice of the residents in the county, where one of her daughters teaches and three of her grandchildren attend school.
Her main concerns, she said, were over Wingate's support of spending $500,000 for the facilities review, his support of a proposed $34 million tax increase for education and the handling of the contract extension for Superintendent Bryan Johnson — which she termed "premature."
Sounding very much like Decosimo and Thurman, she said the "top-heavy" central office spending needed to be reevaluated and reallocated to better support teachers and students.
District 7 is home to Apison Elementary School, Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School, East Hamilton School and Westview Elementary School.