🏫 School Board Enthusiasts 🏫 The UnifiEd Student Voice Team's School Board Blog
Introduction: (Sophia) A new semester means another year of being confused by a myriad of acronyms, which pretty much describes my mood throughout a good portion of August’s School Board Meeting. It sure is good to...
be back. This month’s meeting had a usual start: initial agenda changes and a heartfelt dedication, but this month, Christy Drake, the principal at East Ridge Middle, also included a warm welcome to the Interim Superintendent, Dr. Nakia Towns. Following this was the Future Ready update, which as usual, drags on for (what seems like) an incredibly long amount of time. This presentation was just over 20 minutes (which isn’t too bad compared to previous ones), but it consisted of basically the same information as always. They take this time to share data showing the success of Hamilton County Schools (HCS) students compared to the state, which is a fantastic thing but could be a bit more concise.
Tyner Academy Discussion: (Sophia) The Future Ready presentation led to a bewildering discussion about ESSER funding (one of the acronyms mentioned above that initially confused me) and the new Tyner Academy School. For context, many seniors recently walked out of the school and demanded repairs for a section of the building that was crumbling, molding, and leaking. These students later confronted their local representatives, including the County Commission and the School Board, about repairs and potential rebuilding. Okay, the damages have been brought to everyone's attention, but now what? Well, that’s where things get tricky.
The board discussed using ESSER funds, which is federal grant money, to fund the rebuilding. However, to use these funds (around 25 million dollars), the new school would need to be constructed and full of students by August of 2024 (only 35 months away). I’m not going to pretend to be a construction expert and say that this is an impossible deadline, but at first glance, the timeline for this project seems a little rushed and precarious (especially when you consider that there may be delays). The kids at Tyner deserve a new school- one that isn’t literally falling apart- and I hope that the School Board continues to prioritize it, and other outdated buildings in the coming years, even if there are potential drawbacks, bumps, or risky deadlines along the way. Luckily, later in the meeting, the board unanimously voted to hire an architect to make plans for this building, so the first step has been taken.
Board Matters: (Kaitlyn) Following the approval of the Consent Agenda, the meeting then moved to voting on Board Matters. The majority of these topics included little to no discussion, passing unanimously after simple explanations or questions. Although the following matters were more controversial, they still passed without resistance, ending the meeting with full approval. Throughout this section, two points of interest stuck out to me, and the board members, the most: the HCS Foundation executive director and the 2021-2022 COVID leave regulations for teachers.
Before watching this meeting, I had never even heard of the HCS Foundation. I am unsure whether this is due to my unawareness or the organization’s limited presence, but looking at their website leads me to believe it is the latter. The HCS Foundation appears to be a nonprofit group partnered with Hamilton County Schools but is actually separate from the school system. Although their values and mission appear to reflect the necessary components of student success, I can’t help but feel as if something is missing. Their only information is limited to a short description of their goals, the amount of money raised thus far, and a list of the board of directors. Their space on the HCS website is equally uninforming, containing vague descriptions of their initiatives and vision.
Although some of the Board Members, like Jenny Hill, mentioned that HCS Foundation had done good work, I seem not to be able to find any evidence of said accomplishments. In fact, the MEF (the Mountain Education Fund for Signal Mountain) appears to have a more significant presence than an organization that should be benefitting the entire district. I do not have any problems with the HCS Foundation’s reasons for funding or their mission, but I wish they were more explicit in what areas they provide aid in. Even though some School Board Members mentioned that the whole reason for its development was to help carry out the system’s strategic plan, I see no specific details or mentions of such. I believe that the HCS Foundation’s outreach would be more influential if they were to detail their accomplishments and flesh out the overview of the organization. As they undergo infrastructural changes, I hope that they modify the public view of their work to become more efficient.
As the board matters section came to a close, they finished with the last subject: the allotted number of COVID days for teachers. Initially proposing five days, Tucker McClendon counteracted with an offer of seven, which I believe is fairer regarding the number of exposures teachers face. Rhonda Thurman brought up the question of whether not unvaccinated and vaccinated teachers would be treated differently. In accordance with CDC policy, the answer is yes. In some cases, vaccinated school employees may not even have to quarantine due to the new regulations. However, all teachers would still be guaranteed the same amount of COVID days, no matter their vaccination status.
Contrary to Mrs. Thurman’s initial beliefs, I don’t think the differing treatment between the vaccinated and unvaccinated teachers is unjust. This is not a matter of fairness, rather evaluating the possibility of a positive contraction dependent on the protective measures one has taken against COVID. Additionally, Mrs. Thurman also brought up concerns that some teachers would misuse these extra days. Although there will always be outliers, I firmly believe that those forced to quarantine will not take advantage of their “free time” due to their previous obligations. However, those that do should face the consequences of their actions through administrative discipline.
Board Policies: (Sophia) In this meeting, 13 people signed up to address the board (Kaitlyn details these delegations later in the blog). With a 5-minute time limit for each person, that would mean that the delegations section alone takes up 65 minutes of the board meeting. This has become a pattern recently, with more and more people signing up to speak at these meetings.Obviously, it’s a major part of the board members’ jobs to address the concerns of their community, but with these extensive meeting times, they began a discussion regarding how to shorten this time and make sure that everyone's concerns are adequately addressed. Joe Smith pointed out that community members are allotted only 3 minutes at Chattanooga City Council, and Hamilton County Commission meetings, which Jenny Hill later agreed is a fair amount of time to reach more people. Rhonda Thurman commented that with delegations now at the end of meetings, people might be speaking about something they would have already voted on or hadn’t even been a part of the agenda. These are fair and accurate observations, but the real question is what to do with these delegations.
Scott Bennett, the attorney for the School Board, seemed to reach a reasonable conclusion at the end of this discussion, which in theory addresses all of these issues. He proposed that instead of having all delegations speak at the Regular Session of the School Board Meetings, they would instead split up. On Mondays, during the Agenda Session, all people with general concerns would be welcome to speak. On Thursdays, during the Regular Session, only people with agenda-related concerns would speak. This way, anyone with general concerns could address the School Board before they vote and get their concerns put on the agenda itself.
The time taken during the Regular Session would only be dedicated to business matters. In my opinion, this is an excellent solution to an inconvenient issue, which has been lengthening the School Board Meetings for too long. If this plan, though it has merely been discussed, were to be instituted, then more people would feel comfortable addressing the Board, and a more comprehensive range of people across multiple communities would be reached. In addition to this, with the number of delegates split across meetings, the speaking time would not have to be limited to three, and everyone could have the full five minutes to express their concerns. I hope they continue discussing this plan to work out the problems and eventually institute it into practice.
Delegations: (Kaitlyn) A number of 13 delegations appeared before the School Board this meeting, reserving nearly 65 minutes for outside speakers. I found a large portion of the delegations hard to follow along with as parents brought up differing points through unfinished metaphors and personal stories. I could not fully grasp what concerns they brought to the conversation or what they wished to accomplish. Some questioned their students’ curriculum, angrily accusing the School Board of including topics they thought unfit for their children’s education. However, these demands do not change much, as the curriculum is decided at a state level, not a district one. Although I am aware of the importance of freedom of speech and public opinion, I found a large portion of the speakers to be rather ineffective. However, this does not negate that they have the right to be heard and have their concerns addressed. I believe that shortening the allotted time might force these speakers to be more concise, leading to more productive sessions.
Out of the 13 speakers, two brought up topics I would like to address. The first one was brought up by Doug Daughtrey, who spoke about the low literacy rates of students in urban schools. Tennessee is infamous for its dropping reading comprehension rates, which has produced the need for more robust combative measures. Although this has been primarily addressed as a statewide issue, I believe that programs initiated by the county could be more productive. This would, in turn, allow more specific aid to be given out, efficiently dealing with the worsening issue. (Further information about literacy rates can be found in our new Fooling With The Ruling policy blog).
A second parent raised concerns about the difference between Zoom learning and in-person school and the ineffectiveness of online work. As someone who did not thrive in a Zoom-centered curriculum, I understand his concerns but do not necessarily agree with him. Most students and teachers do not like online school, meaning there is no reason to re-embrace the notion of returning to a digital school year. However, the only reason Zoom and online work are being brought up again is due to the fact that cases are rising and students and teachers alike are being forced to quarantine. Zoom is a last resort option and, quite frankly, is better than students being left to fend for themselves. I have already had friends who have been forced to quarantine this year, leaving them only with online assignments and little instruction due to teachers’ inability to stream the class. Although Zoom is not the best option, there will come a day where it’s our only one.
Conclusion: (Kaitlyn) As the school year starts again, the Student Voice Team is glad to be back for another great season of advocacy and civic education! Although this meeting may not have been as heated or controversial as some of the others, we’re glad to see cooperation between Board Members as they vote in the best interest of students. Even though last year was incredibly different and a bit chaotic, we hope to see a more “normal” school experience. I know we’re all a bit dismayed at the notion of another COVID year, but I hope we’ll face fewer learning struggles as we learn to balance education and containing infection rates. As evidenced by the allotted number of COVID days for teachers and several other measures discussed in this meeting, I believe that we are heading in the right direction of such hopes. Thank you for joining us once again as we begin the 2021-2022 school year and start a new chapter of our work!