Superintendent Rick Smith gave his annual “state of the schools” address Wednesday to PTA members gathered at Central Office.
It was Smith’s second address since being appointed as superintendent last summer. During his 30-minute speech, Smith placed his focus on the challenges of continuing growth in the school system, promoting STEM initiatives and closing achievement gaps, and followed by allowing parents in the audience to ask questions and voice their concerns.
Much of the address focused on the school system’s handling of growing numbers of students in schools, particularly in eastern portions of Hamilton County. The superintendent said that last spring’s rezoning for East Hamilton Middle-High School had been a success but indicated that this year’s drop in enrollment at the school would not last for long.
“Looking forward, we anticipate growth to continue,” he said.
Briefly commenting on discussions taking place at the state level regarding school vouchers, Smith said he was against the idea.
“I think vouchers take money away from public education and could create some other issues,” Smith said. “I don’t think that in Hamilton County it would help improve our community.”
Smith said he was also pleased with relationship building with members of the business, higher education and foundation communities that had taken place as a result of the recent effort to bring a STEM school to Chattanooga. The superintendent also commented on enjoying his relationship with the office of Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger.
Despite recent tensions over communication between the school system and the Hamilton County Commission, Smith made no direct mention of his relationship to the entity responsible for funding and approving his budget. He later said that newly proposed meetings between Coppinger, himself, and a member of both the school board and the commission would be an opportunity to have “a good conversation.”
“Any time you afford yourself the opportunity to communicate, the better off you’re going to be,” he said in an interview with Nooga.com. “We need to make sure we are able to continue to have that kind of communication.”
Smith also made little mention of the school system’s partnership in efforts to suppress gang activity in the city, despite Boyd Patterson, gang task force coordinator, being present for his speech. Smith, who briefly recognized Patterson at the beginning of his remarks, said that although student safety was paramount to his department, he did not sense an overwhelming sense of gang associations taking place in local schools.
“To this particular point, we’ve not had what I consider to be a hugely significant issue with regards to the gang situation in schools during the school day,” Smith said. “Most of our kids are coming to school with the intention of being a student that day. They’re not there for other purposes, and if they are, then we’re addressing that.”
Patterson later said he was confident in his organization’s partnership with the school system and would continue discussions with administrators and educators on how to best address the issue from within schools.
“Rick Smith is on our steering committee, and I’ve had an ongoing conversation with him since before we began,” Patterson said. “He’s acknowledged that we’ve been working for the past year and a half, and now, these conversations will continue. I can tell you that in meetings we have, that’s where the work gets done.”
Following the speech, Smith fielded questions from PTA members.
Rebecca Miller, the parent of a student at Central High School, asked the superintendent what plans were for replacing a leaking roof and moldy ceilings at the school. Miller said the mold had affected the air quality inside Central, causing her daughter to come home sick on occasion.
“Over the weekend, my daughter got better, but on Monday, she comes home and she’s sick again,” Miller said. “It’s not just her, it’s also the teachers who have to open doors outside in classrooms. It’s ridiculous.”
Smith said plans were being made to install a new roof within the coming months and added that the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department was monitoring the air quality in the school’s facilities on a regular basis.
Answering a question on six county schools recently placed on the state’s priority list for low-performing schools, the superintendent said he thought the issue was reflective of a “feeder pattern” of students not being adequately prepared before advancing through the school system.