Something's not right about the Hamilton County Board of Education. Maybe a lot is not right about our school board.
The trouble is, we're not sure things will get much better, given the Tennessee General Assembly's recent passage of a law that injects almost-always toxic partisanship into school board elections statewide and the Hamilton County Commission's recent vote to add two new school board districts and seats to the now nine-member board.
Why, you may wonder, do we worry things are not right with the board right now? The answer lies in a series of additional questions:
- Why last week did the school board have to call a special meeting Monday to reverse its recent vote to reject a plan by the state to bring a pilot program — yes, with money and teaching help — to Orchard Knob Middle School? Board member Joe Smith, who was among the original majority 6-2 vote to reject the state help, said he had not been advised earlier that the board really had no choice in the matter, thanks to a state board of education policy decision and to a new state law.
- This begs another question: Why did the board's attorney not make the matter clear? According to more than one recent news report, Smith in Monday's called meeting said he had listened to a tape of the previous meeting three times, and it was not made clear for the initial vote. This is important not just because, as Smith said, "This whole thing makes us look like a bunch of fools," but also because it may mean that the county loses $750,000 previously promised by the state for Howard High School.
- There also is a question of outsized ego: Why is the board worried about who will get credit, the state or the board, for improvements at Orchard Knob Middle School — or any school? Board member, Karitsa Jones, said school officials "have worked a lot of years and they are so close to coming off the list. Now the students will become part of another experiment at the cost of their academic achievement. The school's going off the list and the state is going to say, 'Yay, we did it.' "
Board member Jenny Hill the week before said, "The state wants to come with a quick win with Orchard Knob Middle because of the very diligent work that Hamilton County schools has been doing."
On Monday, board Chairman Tucker McClendon berated the state help, saying it "is not a partnership", but rather, the state was completely running the show. "The way this went down was really, really wrong," he said.
Could it be the board and its attorney are just really, really wrong?
- Another pointed question: After four years of solid accomplishments — not the least of which were bringing Hamilton County the accolade of being Tennessee's "fastest improving school district," as well as winning for himself the title of Tennessee's School Superintendent of the Year and being named one of four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year, why did the board's sole employee, former Superintendent Bryan Johnson, suddenly announce he was resigning to become the Chief of Staff at U.S. Xpress, a trucking and logistics company?
- Still another: Why did his deputy, Nakia Towns, not put her own hat into the ring to become this board's sole employee and superintendent? She already has put her name in running for at least one other superintendent job, and she previously worked as an assistant commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education.
- Why did two of five final candidates for superintendent withdraw even before interviews began taking place? Did they catch a whiff of poor leadership?
Leadership begins at the top, and in this case the board is the top. If something is as wrong here as it seems, new Superintendent Justin Robertson may have a very steep mountain to climb.
Over the past four-and-a-half years under Johnson, Towns, and then chief operations officer Robertson, Hamilton County schools have seemed for the most part to continue a hard-fought rise — inch by grudging inch, despite the ravages of the pandemic and the hijinks of local politics.
It's true that 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. But we cannot discount the accomplishments.
At a full 85% of Hamilton County schools — 67 of 79 schools — a majority of students met or exceeded the state's growth standards across four subject areas for the 2020-21 school year, according to new Tennessee Value Added Assessment System data. Some 34 schools received designations of distinction — what the state calls "reward school status" as high performers — and 27 schools increased achievement over their scores from 2019.
Almost all of the county's nine "priority schools," so designated because they are in the lowest-performing 5% of all schools in Tennessee, saw improvements with eight increasing their percentile ranking. Two schools, Clifton Hills and Woodmore elementaries, exited from priority school designation.
Best of all, 82% of teachers met or exceeded growth standards for their students — a measure of teacher effectiveness. Five years ago, in 2016, only 63% met or exceeded the standard and nearly a third ranked among the state's "least effective." This past year, only 8% were among the state's least effective.
This school board needs to stop worrying about who gets credit and get its act together before our classrooms lose the fingernail holds they have on momentum.