🏫 School Board Enthusiasts 🏫 The UnifiEd Student Voice Team's School Board Blog
In the past week, the school board has been conducting its biannual debates to see who will be the next representatives for districts 1, 2, 4, and 7 on the Hamilton County School Board. During these unprecedented times, hot-button topics such as school reopenings and new options for learning,
such as a hybrid of online and in-person classes, were discussed so voters could gain insight into the candidates’ views on the issues. There were some familiar faces, such as Rhonda Thurman (District 1) and Joe Wingate (District 7). However, there were also some newcomers running as potential board members such as Stephen Vickers (District 1), Marco Perez (District 2), and Tom Decosimo (District 2). As expected, each district debate focused on different priorities that are specific to the geographic areas that they are composed of throughout Hamilton County, such as the need for facilities repairs.
Hot button topics, such as digital inequities, what school life will look like during COVID-19, and general priorities for each candidate, were discussed in each of the debates. One aspect of the reopening school discussion is the district’s current four-phased reopening plan. The school district has created a plan, with the help of their Reopening Task Force, that uses the number of cases, hospitalizations, and ICU visits to make decisions regarding the status of schools. To learn more about our thoughts on this plan and the details of the plan you can keep reading here. Quotes featured in this blog’s graphics were taken directly from the comment section of the Facebook live broadcasts (links included below).
During the District 1 debate, candidate and incumbent Rhonda Thurman and her challenger, Stephen Vickers, detailed their views. Regarding the Hamilton County School Reopening Task Force and Reopening Plan (which you can find here), Rhonda Thurman was very clear that she does not agree with students wearing masks. In her opinion, the number of cases for school-aged students is “very very low,” and she doesn’t want teachers to have to act as the “mask police.” Rhonda also shared that she keeps parents in mind. She is concerned that if Hamilton County “arbitrarily goes back to phase two” (where there is moderate mitigation in place for COVID-19), then parents will be left to find people to watch their kids as they go back to work after the last stimulus checks are sent out.
Later on in the debate, a rising 7th grader from Soddy Daisy Middle School asked the candidates what they would do about the achievement gaps across the county that are caused by inequities in technology as we began to pick up distance learning. Rhonda replied that she knows that the Superintendent and EPB are partnering to create hotspots in areas that have struggled with connectivity. Rhonda stated that she understands “some principals were willing to pay out of pocket” to help students get wifi because she realized that some kids did not have access to that at their homes. She also mentioned there is a church in the Soddy area that has partnered with EPB and has free wifi and encouraged other churches to look into that option to provide for the community.
Top priorities for Mrs. Thurman include; having kids attend school in person this coming school year, completing the Sale Creek football field, paving the parking lot at Soddy-Daisy High School, and moving Soddy Daisy Middle School up on the priority list of repairs. She champions in-person attendance over safety and continues to focus on the same two projects she has been working on for several years now. With controversial opinions on new mask mandates and different ideas for how schools should reopen, it seems as though District 1, much like the rest of the county, is searching for a representative that can help find answers for these issues in the Hamilton County school system.
Challenger Stephen Vickers spoke clearly and conveyed his positions well. Vickers’ priorities for District 1 include observing problems that the county faces from a “holistic perspective” and responding to COVID-19 with efficiency while focusing on the schools and recognizing they are for the benefit of the teachers, parents, and students.
Tracy Pourfarzib, a District 1 parent, raised a question about the four-phase plan for the upcoming school year. Mr. Vickers stated that the proposed plan is the most detailed plan possible, which establishes protections for students, faculty, and the community and has flexibility for the constant changes in COVID-19 numbers. Safety is his top priority for reopening schools. Rhonda Thurman said that students should be in school regardless of the safety issues. She said school-aged children have a lower risk of getting infected. Thurman also explained that masks shouldn’t be required because teachers would have to babysit them more than teaching. Vickers countered that the recent Reach Program conducted a trial of how school will look this upcoming fall. He pointed out that the students seem to be managing the masks well, which also raises the question of who to listen to when making a plan and considering the safety of students, teachers, and staff. Vickers said he would start by considering the opinions of professionals, such as doctors. He pledged to listen to the views of teachers, students, and the community. Vickers would consider looking at the data to make sure that the district is taking the necessary precautions. When considering all the changes, Vickers believes that it is all about adapting to where the kids are. It is all about meeting the students where they are.
Next, the two candidates were asked what their funding priorities would be. Rhonda Thurman claimed that before anything, she would raise teacher salary. Vickers insisted that the first step is to balance out the budget. Teacher raises come after. Past District 1 achievements was another topic discussed during the debate. Vickers believed that in the past year, test scores have increased. So many previous level 2 or 3 schools had become level 5 schools.
The two candidates for the District 2 school board seat are Marco Perez and Tom Decosimo. At first glance and upon further investigation, the two appear to be polar opposites due to their differing views on most issues and strategies for district improvement. Unlike the County Commission and many other elected offices, school board members are not identified with a political party while running or serving, as the position is supposed to be nonpartisan. However, Tom Decosimo has been using campaign materials that state that he will be ‘bringing conservative values back to the school board.’ This raises concerns for me, as a Hamilton County District 2 Student, as I feel that a commitment to conservative values, rather than to what’s best for the students and schools, could lead to decisions that are based in political ideology rather than based on the impacts that they will have for students, teachers, and schools. From the tone of the debate, it appears that Decosimo’s central campaign platform is simply disdain for the current school board and its actions (namely last year’s proposed budget increase); in addition, he also has questionable views on student advocacy as seen around the student-organized peaceful protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd (read more here). By contrast, his opponent Marco Perez seems to be relatively inoffensive. Perez is campaigning that students should have equal access to technology, teachers should be fairly compensated, and students should be safe while they are at school, among many other ideas. However, nothing stands out as a new idea or a unique viewpoint brought to the table. Perez has a history as a budget analyst and believes that he has skills and ideas to bring to the board; unfortunately, many of these ideas are difficult to visualize without seeing Marco on the school board. Tom also has a history in finance, as a CPA, and believes that this will enable him to view where there is waste within the school system. It appears that Marco may be interested in facilitating and assisting the progress of the school system. Conversely, Tom may be interested in introducing his ideas for how to get momentum.
Throughout the debate, it seemed that Marco was answering questions and stating ideas for solutions. However, it seemed that Tom was returning to previous conversations, hyper-focusing only on what he wanted to talk about, and avoiding words that he felt were bad. For instance, when asked about educational equity, Decosimo stated that “equity is a bit of a loaded word… I wish we didn’t use it.” It appeared that Tom wanted to shift the focus away from Marco’s answers and onto his own disdain for the words, rather than onto his solutions and ideas. Both appear to want what is best for our schools and students; however, they have very different definitions of what will be best. Marco wants to enhance educational options and extracurriculars, support teachers, and create a safe environment within our schools. Marco said, "I want [students] to be able to reach for the stars, and I want to know that our system and our schools will provide every opportunity for them to do that."
In contrast, Tom wants to ensure that every child simply gets a “foundational education,” and for students to know how to read by 3rd grade, and that teachers are compensated fairly. Tom stated that he thinks that there is a misuse of funding within the school system, specifically at the top and in central office. Conversely, Marco wants to ensure that every student is supported within our schools, and that support often comes from support staff at the district central office of which Tom was not in favor. In the end, the decision for District 2 voters will come down to what you think is essential in education.
On July 14th, the debate between Debbi Meyers and Joe Wingate for The Hamilton County School Board position began. Joe Wingate, as said in his interview posted on WRCBtv, is “a 22-year educator at the middle school, high school, community college, and university levels.” Along with this, Wingate shared his personal, educational credentials, “I hold a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education with an emphasis in Biology, a master’s degree in Educational Administration, a master’s degree in Exercise Science, and am currently two years into a doctoral program at East Tennessee State University.” He is also experienced as a coach, which he stepped away from 19 years ago. Debbi Meyers, who has a past as a “Human Resource Director as well as a State Supreme Court Mediator” does not have experience in education, but does believe that her experience will be a “tremendous asset to the Hamilton County School Board.” During her introduction in the debate, she described her desire to outreach to more conservative voters during this year's school board election.
Starting the debate was a question about reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one concerned parent even calling in to hear the responses of the two candidates. Debbi Meyers stood firm on her belief that masks should be required when reopening, while Joe Wingate wavered around the issue as a matter of opinion. His idea that masks should be a matter of opinion is dangerous, in my opinion. It will only lead to a higher risk of infection in schools, which will be nearly impossible to stop. On the next two topics, which were how they would organize the budget for District 7 and what should be done for those affected by the tornados earlier this year, the candidates had remarkably similar answers. They almost danced around the question, only using the examples of relocation from the tornado as a specific issue in these two concepts. They both said little on if they believed that teachers should be given higher pay.
Following this was the discussion on racial integration in schools, with statistics showing that most Black and Latino students in Hamilton County attend high poverty schools. This question almost seemed to make the candidates uncomfortable. It seemed as though they did not know how to naturally answer the question without bringing up magnet schools or the perceived negatives of “forced” busing. Joe Wingate started by saying that he felt “absolutely diversity is important,” which he then followed up by discussing how we must create the same excitement that is in magnet schools in all our public schools. Debbi Meyers began by stating that, “where you live or where you go to school should not affect the level of education you receive,” a point which she continued on by stating that she was against a policy of “forced busing” to achieve diversity. Joe Wingate then rebutted his belief in the necessity of “community school with value.” The following question, a discussion of how the candidates would work in collaboration with the County Commissioners to allocate funds, was less heated. Both had similar answers, which could be described merely as “collaborate.” It seemed like they were more excited about who they would be working with than who they would be working for, that being the students of District 7.
The final two questions, in our opinion, were in direct opposition to each other. The first question was on advocacy groups, such as Hamilton County United and UnifiEd, which both candidates denounced as organizations looking to “overrun” the school board and to “push an agenda.” The next question was over student advocacy against injustice, which both candidates believed should be allowed if done “peacefully.” What more peaceful way is there than advocacy that uses words and stories to push forward for the good of a cause. Additionally, many of the advocacy groups the two candidates denounced have student and teacher voices backing them. Which is it, are we allowed to make our voices heard, or are we “overrunning the school board”? Seeing the school board candidates flip-flopping on this topic is disheartening.
Overall, these two candidates had many similar viewpoints. This debate stayed civil and reflected each of the candidates’ views. This debate showed the opinions of the candidates mostly separated in terms of how the budget should be established, if teachers should be given higher pay, and what School Board priorities should receive funding. For District 7 voters, it appears that making this decision will come down to your stances on the previous issues and the professional background that you prefer a school board member to have: business or teaching.
Whether you reside in District 1, 2, 4, or 7, school board elections are on August 6th. As always, the public must be informed and vote for their local officials. Early voting began on July 17th and ends August 1st; absentee ballots are available till July 30th. To learn more about early voting, absentee ballots, and how to find information on your District, click here.