Clarification: Hamilton County commissioners do not sign a code of ethics, but the county attorney Rheubin Taylor said Wednesday that commissioners are still obligated to uphold the one signed by the commission in 2006.
We have to think about what will benefit the entire education system, which may mean a particular commissioner or school board member does not get everything they would like to see for their particular district
Before the Hamilton County school board voted last week to prioritize new school construction, County Commissioner Tim Boyd texted a board member demanding support for a new school in his district.
"I expect you to support the initiative for the new [Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts] and I expect you to publicly state this as your position," Boyd wrote in a text message to school board member Joe Smith.facebook
Boyd represents East Ridge on the commission, and said he voted for the new Middle Valley Elementary School in Hixson, Smith's district, expecting a vote in return for a new CSLA, according to the text message.
"I supported you for the school board with the same expectation," Boyd said in the text.
Smith was not swayed by Boyd's request, instead voting to place the construction of a new Harrison Elementary and East Hamilton Middle School ahead of CSLA on the district's list of priorities. The school board ultimately voted to make Harrison its top priority, followed by CSLA and then East Hamilton Middle.
After the vote, Boyd sent Smith a text saying, "Your ranking CSLA does not sit well with me."
The school construction priority list is expected to be presented to the commission today, as it holds the school district's purse strings.
A copy of the text messages Boyd sent Smith was obtained by the Times Free Press and not provided by either party, but both men confirmed the existence of the texts.
Though Boyd's text to Smith may not violate the law, several elected officials have questioned the ethics behind their colleagues' quid-pro-quo deals and threats. Hamilton County commissioners no longer sign a code of ethics. The last time one was signed by each member was in 2006, before Boyd was elected to the commission.
Carrie Russell, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said ethical behavior is about fairness and what is right and wrong.
"Ethics are normally a body outside of the law," Russell said. "Something can be legal but it's not ethical, and something can be ethical and not legal."
Elected officials are trusted to act ethically and in the best interest of the constituents they serve, Russell said. There is, of course, back scratching and horse trading in politics, she added, but just because it's a normal practice doesn't make it good or ethical for one party to influence or exert pressure on another.
Russell said a commissioner sending a text message to a school board member about a specific vote is not a transparent way to communicate, noting how the commissioner could have stated his opinions publicly.
"Then everyone [would have been] a part of the discussion and discourse, and so it wouldn't give the appearance of a threat," she said.
When contacted about the text, Boyd said Tuesday that it was sent out of frustration and described it as "childish."
"I have since apologized for sending it," Boyd said. "I don't think there is anything to talk about to me, it's a non-issue."
Boyd added that he respects Smith, describing him as a man with "high integrity."
Smith said Tuesday that he is on the school board because he wants to do what's best for kids across Hamilton County.
"We have to think about what will benefit the entire education system, which may mean a particular commissioner or school board member does not get everything they would like to see for their particular district," he added.
Smith said he responded to Boyd, explaining why he voted for Harrison and East Hamilton and encouraging him to work with the commission and school district to do what's in the best interest of all students.
"I respect [Boyd] and know he has a passion to do what's best for the people of his district," Smith added.
Smith said CSLA is an outstanding school and understands that it needs a new building — estimated to cost about $64 million — but it's a magnet school and takes a small share of students from many schools across the county. This means a new, larger CSLA would not help with the overcrowding felt in schools across the county, he said.
Building a new Harrison Elementary is expected to cost about $35 million, and is a more common-sense approach as it could allow the district to merge the 77-year-old school with nearby elementary schools Hillcrest and Lakeside, he said.
"Of course [these schools] are out of my district," Smith said. " I want a new gym for Hixson High School in my district, but these other things are probably needed more than the gym is needed."
In the texts to Smith, Boyd also voiced frustration with fellow commissioner Greg Martin, who used to have Smith's seat on the school board.
"I am tired of supporting District 3 school board nominees and getting nothing in return," Boyd wrote in the text. "I supported Greg Martin and got nothing in return. I have now supported you with similar results."
Martin said Tuesday that he never made a quid-pro-quo deal with Boyd on school construction or anything else, and said he thought Boyd supported him for the school board years ago because he was the strongest candidate.
"If he thinks people owe him something, then he and I are not singing out of the same hymnbook," Martin said. " I'm singing with the people of Hixson."
Martin said he is elected to represent the constituents of District 3 and is not concerned if Boyd approves of his votes.
"Commissioner Boyd can continue to expect nothing from me in return," he said.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.