🏫 School Board Enthusiasts 🏫 The UnifiEd Student Voice Team's School Board Blog
For this blog, we have chosen to take things a bit differently in several respects. This school board marks the first school board blog with our newly hired student organizers (Intro blog for these...
students is coming soon!). So this blog will be filled with our takes about the February School Board Meetings’ content and new students’ perspectives as first-time school board meeting watchers. Due to the content of this school board meeting and agenda meeting, we have elected to include our reactions to the February Agenda Meeting in addition to our regularly scheduled blogging about the February School Board Meeting.
Agenda Meeting: This month’s Agenda Meeting was relatively uneventful and standard, other than a conversation surrounding the Educator Diversity Policy. As the Educator Diversity Policy was presented, its purpose was to encourage a more diverse system of educators within Hamilton County. School Board Member Thurman sternly spoke out by protesting the language in the policy by stating, “Well, why don’t we just say any other race but white people (should be hired through this policy)?” To that, I say: Mrs. Thurman, that is the entire point of the policy. As a black student of Hamilton County, I can confidently say that I have only had one teacher of color in my 12 years of learning. To include “white people” would be redundant because white teachers currently make up 87% of the Tennessee educator population while "13% are educators of color." The resistance of representation in this county by folks who have been represented for years is not surprising to me. However, what is surprising is that a board member who once claimed that she “doesn't see color” is now cured of her color-blindness regarding the threat of misrepresentation of the so-called “white people” in her district.
School Board Meeting - Delegations: Lisa Willard began this month’s presentation of delegations with the emphatic advocate for abolishing the COVID Rapid Testing Program within schools. Ms. Willard started her speech by addressing the negative impacts of false-positive test results many students have faced. She asserted that continuing the program would only serve to drive numbers back up. I disagree with Ms. Willard’s first statement-- testing does not drive up infection numbers but instead accurately records infection rates. The actual examination itself does not increase the number of cases; there is no one administering strains of COVID in these centers in an attempt to infect more people. The testing program helps slow the spread and provides the correct information to policymakers and the public.
As she continued her speech, Ms. Willard brought attention to the fact that rapid testing can have unreliable results in low-prevalence populations (a majority of students fall into this category). She spoke about how 2 out of 3 asymptomatic students will receive false positives, which is around a 65% frequency rate. However, Ms. Willard largely failed to note the true purpose of rapid testing. Tennessee currently has implemented the BinaxNOW Rapid test within schools, which does, in fact, have a 65% false-positive rate--a number that may seem high but has an alternate purpose. If three asymptomatic students and two were to test positive, they would have to take the golden standard (PCR) tests to validate their infection. Since both of these tests are administered on the same day, students and staff would only have to quarantine for a few days until results came back. Rapid testing cannot have false negatives; therefore, it assures those consenting students that test that way are not infected, while those who receive false positives only have to quarantine for a short period. Ms. Willard then addressed the school board by stating, “You are now affecting students and families who did not consent.”
Unfortunate as it may seem, none of us consented to the COVID-19 pandemic, but no one had the choice of avoiding it. Although it is a regrettable loss of experience for students learning in-person, it is short-lived as close contacts only have to quarantine for two weeks. Those who have no symptoms or test negative by PCR may even return to school in just a week. As a student suspected of having Corona because of related symptoms, I was able to take a free PCR test and go back to school in a few short days after receiving my negative test results.
Ms. Willard also brought attention to the decline of mental health within the student population, something the Student Voice Team is especially outspoken about.
Throughout the pandemic, suicide has quadrupled among children and teens. She expounded a passionate speech detailing the risks of isolation and its effect on students’ relationships, families, and academics. Ms. Willard emphasized that many have difficulty coping with the loss of family members, extracurriculars, or contact with others. She also accentuated how such events will increase Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) or traumatic events that will last long into adulthood. Although we agree with Ms. Willard on her stance on mental health and prioritizing students in this process, we seem to differ in opinions on her solution’s effectiveness. As more people get vaccinated, and we move closer to the end of the pandemic, it would be unwise to loosen safety measures now. Increasing support for students who have difficulty coping with loss or mental health instability would help much more than abolishing the rapid testing system. We commend Ms. Willard for her emphasis on the students but suggest taking a more proactive approach that would yield beneficial change.
School Board Meeting - Delegations (Continued): The second delegation to approach the school board meeting was a staple of school board meetings, Jeanette Omarkhail with HCEA (Hamilton County Education Association). During her speech at this month’s meeting, she showed a video from the Tennessee Education Association about state funding inadequacies for local school systems as it is currently designated through the BEP (Basic Education Program). The BEP is the primary system at a state level to fund local school systems; however, it still leaves much of the necessary funding to meet basic needs up to local school systems. This means that if a county school system cannot acquire the money needed to meet student needs, student needs simply aren’t being met. Jeanette called upon the school board to urge Tennessee to provide more baseline funding through the BEP.
The BEP currently covers just 56% of per-pupil spending for Hamilton County, but Omarkhail and many others want to see that grow after seeing the budget surplus that the state of Tennessee has seen for the past few years. As a student who has been involved in some past budget campaigns to advocate for more funding for student, faculty, and facility needs within Hamilton County Schools, this proposed increase in the BEP could have extremely beneficial consequences for our school system and many others to support the students and faculty better.
Following the other delegations, Keith Bowman brought up the case of Mr. Jonathan McKenney, a Signal Mountain school bus driver who had been recently terminated. He was said to be fired for his speech through social media, where he questioned the district’s choice of bus route (more info here).
While many supporting Signal Mountain families reached out to school board members to urge them to take action, board members quickly pointed out that the School Board can’t fire Mr. McKenney. As a contracted Hamilton Co. bus driver (HCDE Bus Guide), the contractor could simply decide to and reassign them to a different route. The contractor could potentially substitute another driver, but ultimately, the issue’s resolution would be limited to the contractor and the bus driver. Knowing this, and with additional information presented forth by Mr. Bowman, School Board Members ultimately concluded that the HCDE School Board lacked legal jurisdiction over this issue. While watching this school board meeting, it came to my mind to research the HCDE School Board’s limitations. Some of the school board members’ responsibilities include approving budgets for schools, working on the school calendar, and working closely with other school and district leaders on allocating school supplies, providing safety, resources, and facilities. While on the HCDE School Board website, I was able to see some of their goals and core values listed. “Ensure a safe, clean, and orderly environment that promotes learning in all schools; improve the academic performance of all students; enhance and strengthen the programs that promote good citizenship.” With examples of a few of the school board’s goals, it was clear to me that some of the values listed related to those of UnifiEd. As a member of the Student Voice Team here at UnifiEd, I have seen the significant impact of improving the education system in Hamilton County. I would like to thank both the HCDE School Board and the great community members we have here in Hamilton County.
School Board Meeting -Future Ready Update: Future Ready is a large part of Hamilton County Schools and is addressed with updates in almost every school board meeting. It has grown individually in a lot of schools, including my own school. The institutes at my school are individually helping so many students with life skills and their career skills. I love the time, commitment, money, and resources that Hamilton County puts into these programs. The goal is for Hamilton County to be the best school district in Tennessee. The main overview of the 2023 monthly updates in this meeting was graduation framework, acceleration of Early Postsecondary Opportunities, Future Ready Institutes Update, and HCS Microcollege brief.
I love the initiation and goal of adding postsecondary options during high school for students that want to get ahead that are already excelling in high school. Being a student who likes to get ahead, I am glad that these opportunities will be in all schools. There will be more opportunities for certifications and career-specific college credits. These options and opportunities will be through the institutes for students to get ahead after high school. New Future Ready Institute (FRI) locations add new career institute options in different schools such as Brainerd, East Hamilton, and Harrison Bay center.
My favorite update is that Hamilton County is working towards developing Microcolleges on high school campuses. Right now, schools have limited dual enrollment opportunities, but having these Microcollges on each campus will increase student opportunity.
School Board Meeting - Conclusion: After the extensive Future Ready presentation, they passed a Consent Agenda, with no discussion, and then voted on “Administrative Business Matters.” They also voted on applying for a federal grant, approving special courses for the next school year, solidifying a contract for desk partitions, and approving the calendar for the next school year. Even though this was my first time watching a School Board meeting, the meeting structure and the formalities that took place were easy to follow, especially with the relaxed atmosphere (which I’ve heard is a significant contrast from previous meetings). This being said, there were some points where I was confused about acronyms, names of specific policies, or differentiating between each Board Member and their corresponding district. I know that I will become more accustomed to these aspects as I observe more meetings, but I wish they would make that information clearer for newcomers like me. I’m looking forward to the next School Board meeting, which takes place on March 18th.