A lot is riding on the new Hamilton County schools superintendent: more than 44,000 students and their parents, 6,000 school employees and a $440 million budget are just the obvious things.
It's true that the new guy is inheriting a system where improvements were made thanks to four years of hard work by innovative former Superintendent Bryan Johnson and the state's threat to take over — or at least be imposing — our poorest performing schools.
It's also true that other county officials finally stepped up, or almost up, to the plate to improve education funding with a tax increase.
A bonus of those efforts has been that, little by little, the school board members, the county commission and Chattanooga city leaders have finally begun to talk together, ever so gingerly — thanks primarily to business and employer insistence about six years ago via the establishment of Chattanooga 2.0, overseen by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber finally got those elected officials' attention: Painstakingly and with meeting after meeting, chamber leaders in essence took a bullhorn with a loud message to them and all of us: Hello, people, our employers can't hire our children because they are so poorly educated in these public schools! It took a few years, but the message finally got through.
Along the way, Hamilton County Schools finally hired a gifted superintendent (who after four years has now gone to work in the private sector), and we went from being one of Tennessee's least improving school districts to its fastest improving district.
Without question, that's not enough. We must not just be the "fastest improving." We must be one of the best. If not the best.
Another improvement recently marked was October's groundbreaking for the $8 million Chattanooga Construction Career Center, a building trades school on the campus of the former Mary Garber Elementary School in East Chattanooga. It marks the city's first real funding foray into schools (aside from former Mayor Andy Berke's Baby University and early childhood development initiatives) since the city and county school districts were merged in 1997. And, dare we say it? We believe this was the most important groundbreaking our city and county has seen since those of the Volkswagen auto assembly plant and the Tennessee Aquarium.
But make no mistake: None of these recent accomplishments are to say that the new schools leader won't have challenges — big challenges.
In fact, the improvements we've noted become something of a two-edged sword for the new superintendent. It means he'll have his hands full, showing that he can continue to raise the bar. And then raise the bar some more.
— First up is our still far-too-low third-grade reading proficiency rate.
Despite our improvements, still only 36.2% of our third-graders are reading on grade level and more than 41.2% of them are working math problems at grade level.
Yes, this is horrifying. But giving credit where credit is due, even with COVID-19's interference, and even while the entire state's third-graders nose-dived from an already low 38% to 32%, our youngsters' reading grades continued to inch up. Hamilton County third-grader scores rose from 35.6% in 2019 to 36.2% this spring. That means our youngest kids and their teachers and their parents did well this past year even under very difficult circumstances.
But we mustn't celebrate too soon: This won't get easier, as it seems clear this week that COVID-19 isn't through with us yet.
— In addition, there are big upcoming shifts in the lay of the political landscape for this incoming superintendent. Political tremors in our school board and for our local governments will be rattling beneath his feet in years ahead.
Our current nine-member, nonpartisan school board is about to become even more polarized and polarizing. The Tennessee General Assembly passed a new law allowing school board elections to be partisan going forward.
Redistricting resulted in the addition of two new districts to both the county commission and school board. That's four more elected officials our new superintendent will have to develop relationships with — in addition to any newcomers on either panel after the August 2022 county general election.
What's more, all of them have to talk. As our history has shown, getting nine and nine to talk was hard enough.
— Our community also still must grapple with finding the money and political will to build more new schools and/or bring our decades-old facilities up to snuff. A professionally prepared final audit of both deferred maintenance and needed new school construction in 2019 recommended a three-phase, 10-year, $891 million plan to remedy brick and mortar needs. It points up that sooner or later we'll have to accept the reality of fewer, larger and merged schools.
On the whole, the new superintendent has a lot to do.
Here's the deal. He can't do it without the cooperation and determination of his board members, of local and state elected officials and of the business community.
And none of them can do it without all of us.
We all have to step up. And step some more. And then step up again. And again.