Some political observers say school board races are the most important elected seats anywhere. And while it's easy on first thought to give that short shrift, there probably is more than a grain of truth to it.
The National School Board Association puts it this way: The school board represents the community's voice in public education, providing citizen governance and knowledge of the community's resources and needs, and board members are the policy-makers closest to the student.
And then there's money: Education is not a line item in a school board's budget — it is the only item. What's more, board members make only one hire — the superintendent. You better bet the school board member you support is a pivotal choice.
This coming year, we'll have 11 school board members — up from nine before the Hamilton County Commission last year voted to add two county commission and two county school board districts following our census counts showing population changes. Only four seats are not up for election this year, those of District 1, Rhonda Thurman; District 2, Marco Perez; District 4, Tiffany Robinson; and District 7, Joe Wingate.
Of those that are up, four of the 11 posts have contested Republican or Democratic primary races on May 3, and seven will be on the Aug. 4 ballot to face candidates of their opposing party or an independent.
In addition to the new open District 10 and District 11 seats, Hamilton County's board has two more seats left open after District 6 member Jenny Hill ascended to the Chattanooga City Council and District 8 member Tucker McClendon decided this year to seek election to the Hamilton County Commission.
Plus, District 9 incumbent, James Walker is seeking his first election. Walker was appointed in August to replace former board member Steve Highlander, who was appointed by the county commission to replace retiring commissioner Chester Bankston.
Got all that musical chairs stuff? Well, that's another reason school board seats are important. They often are stepping stones to higher office for the politically ambitious.
So yes. School board elections are important. In these contested primary board elections, we have some recommendations.
District 6 — Ben Connor in August
Ben Connor, a 40-year-old father of four daughters and a Democrat, is unopposed in the May 3 primary. Three others are campaigning on the right in the Republican primary, but — far and away — Connor is the best choice in this race.
If, however, you're pulling a Republican ballot, the best on that ticket is Cindy Fain, a business owner who ran Republican Lemon Williams' 2018 state representative campaign and is married to him.
Fain says their first-grader has given her a new perspective into local schools and she has not liked all she saw — especially the day the child came home to talk about being "a victim."
"My vision for education in Hamilton County is to get back to the basics of teaching and learning. All students are individuals and should be independent thinkers. Politics should be left out of the classroom, and students should never know their teachers' political affiliation. "I believe parents should have a larger role in the books and curriculum," she wrote in the Times Free Press voter survey.
Ideologically, Fain and the other two Republican candidates — retiree and 25-year-veteran educator Delores Gross Vinson who has embarked on a two-year process of becoming a deacon in her church, and retired Florida transplant Jon Baker, who talks most of re-examining the schools' budget to find money for routine maintenance — are not our cup of tea.
But of Republicans, we like Fain's youth and understanding of family diversity.
Seriously, Ben Connor is the right fit here.
District 8 — Katie Perkins
This is the one school board primary race that is contested on the Democratic ballot.
Katie Perkins, a 39-year-old mother of three from East Ridge, says she knows being a good parent and being a good school board member are not the same.
"It is the role of a parent to know their children and to understand the material that is appropriate for their child. It is the role of a school board member to provide qualified teachers and librarians who provide quality education and who are understanding of their individual student's needs. Anyone should be allowed to have a say about curriculum."
With a master's degree in fine art-media design, she would advocate for more art in schools, in addition to basic education, as it is in so many ways a building block to basic education.
Perkins faces Democratic primary opposition — at least on paper — from Sandy Norris Smith.
Smith appears to be a candidate only "on paper," because the retired teacher and unsuccessful state rep candidate has done little or no campaigning. Nor did she respond to the TFP's voter survey or repeated phone calls seeking editorial interviews.
In August, Perkins will face Republican opposition from former Chattanooga city councilman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate, Larry Grohn.
District 9 — Tate Smith
We won't be shy here. We know who should not get your vote: Incumbent school board member James Walker.
Going into the endorsement interviews for this race, we felt we didn't really know the incumbent, perhaps because, we reasoned, being only about eight months into the job, some of it over a summer and during a pandemic, maybe he was just being quiet as he learned his way around the central office.
He assured us that he didn't know why anyone thought he was quiet because he has "lots to say." And, yeah. He does. Things like:
"We coddle everybody, and talk about, you know, social and emotional learning. The Department of Education has become the social workers, the juvenile court, the preacher, the pastor, the counselor. ... [In] the budget a couple years ago, they wanted to have like 30 truant officers. That's ridiculous. ... Let's focus on the kids who want to be there."
Question: So should we get rid of social workers, counselors, nurses, SRO's, truant officers. What about those 5% [of no-show or distressed students]?
Walker: "We can't save them all [the kids]. If that sounds heartless or whatever, I apologize."
Moving right along — Tate Smith, at 26 and a graduate of Central High School and Chattanooga State Community College, is the youngest candidate looking for a school board seat. Don't scoff. The current school board chair Tucker McClendon is just now one year older — 27 — as he seeks a county commission post. McClendon was first elected to the school board in 2018 at age 23.
Smith, whose wife and mother are in education, says, "My vision for Hamilton County Schools would have our children feel empowered that what they are learning will be valuable to their future. Student safety is incredibly important I will work with my fellow board members to establish standardized regulations to actively fight bullying."
And he says, "Parents' opinions matter. Students' reading options matter. But the First Amendment shall never be infringed upon. Parents have many career backgrounds and may not have a clear understanding why certain lessons are necessary for a well-rounded student."
Gary Kuehn, 63, a retired Hamilton County teacher and administrator, also seeks this seat and is an advocate for more pre-K learning.
There is no Democrat running for this post.
District 10 — Jeff Crim in August
We'll get to the GOP primary momentarily. First Ascension Lutheran Church pastor Jeff Crim, who helped found the East Ridge Community Food Pantry and served as a council vice president with the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce is the sole Democratic nominee for this seat come August. He's the real deal.
The Ooltewah High School graduate (1993), father of a current Hamilton County student, husband of a teacher and son of a retired teacher told the TFP survey:
"I want to see a school system that embraces the wonderfully diverse world around us I want to see education that values rather than ignores or erases the cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious and neurological diversity that is part of 21st-century America," Crim wrote. "I want students to see themselves and their families represented in the curriculum and materials. I want to see every student given the opportunity of achieving their full potential."
If, however, you are marking a Republican ballot, Roddey Coe understands something about diversity, too.
The 40-year-old father of two students with disabilities is a governor-appointed member of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and a governor-appointed member of the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder. He got there by advocating for his children at the local level.
"I have treated those meetings as a partnership between parents and teachers to ensure the greatest education for our students," he told us.
Two others Republicans seek this seat — 57-year-old Patrick Lee, another Ooltewah graduate, and Faye Robinson, a retired insurance agent and insurance company co-owner. Also in August, independent Christine Essex will be on the ballot.
School board seats are important. Choose wisely.