School board members are discussing equity issues in public schools. (Photo: MGNOnline)

After two school board members spoke against a call for more racial and socioeconomic integration in local public schools, two other leaders have responded to say that it’s important to strive for equity in the system.

This week, District 4 school board member Tiffanie Robinson and District 2’s Kathy Lennon sent out statements after being asked to weigh in on issues that have come up, in part, because of August elections and in reaction to a recent report from nonprofit education organization UnifiEd.

Both Robinson and Lennon, who aren’t up for re-election, said that equity for all students is a top priority and nonpartisan talks are needed to ensure the best for Hamilton County schools.

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Background
Last week, school board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith, who represent District 1 and District 3 respectively, pushed back against a report from UnifiEd, which has also co-hosted a series of debates with Chattanooga 2.0 for the five contested school board elections, scheduled for the county August general election.

The organization’s Action Plan for Educational Excellence Project calls for addressing inequities in schools and aims to end socioeconomic and racial segregation.

The report includes feedback from more than 2,600 community members who identified problems of inequity and envisioned solutions to them.

Possible solutions outlined in the report include attendance zone changes, which means assigning students to schools by neighborhood, or controlled choice options, which involve parents ranking top picks in a lottery system.

“This paired with a robust transportation policy and an intentional focus on school district zones allows for students to attend any school with most families getting their top choice school,” according to the APEX report.

Thurman said last week she doesn’t agree with using transportation to better integrate schools.

“[Unified] calls for using busing to promote integration,” Thurman said in a prepared statement. “UnifiEd may think that busing is a new and innovative idea but, the truth is that busing was tried in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It did not work then and it will not work now, I don’t care what the research says.”

And Smith—who is up for re-election in August—said nothing in the report represented the values of people in his district.

“Hamilton County is a conservative place, and [UnifiEd] has shown itself to be way far to the left on what they believe,” he said in a prepared statement.

Unified officials said Thurman and Smith’s comments are contrary to the needs of the school system and that calling the plan “liberal” is inaccurate.

Statement from Robinson

The single most challenging task facing anyone involved in public education is to combat the negative impacts of our nation’s historical and current injustices.

Righting wrongs and finding ways to elevate those who have been chronically underserved is a fight we fight every single day. And when I say “we,” I mean teachers, administrators, parents, schoolchildren, organizers, elected officials, and anyone else who wishes to see the entirety of our community flourish.

But sometimes all the stakeholders don’t see eye-to-eye on matters. Those moments are bound to happen, and if you’ve paid attention to the local news over the past few days, you’re aware that we’re currently at one of those impasses.

At the heart of the matter in question is a discussion over lingering racial and socioeconomic segregation in our schools, and which future steps Hamilton County should take to decisively win on that front for the sake of our students. The good news is that there is an obvious hunger to tackle the issue. The tough part is that we still need to identify the appropriate steps to take, and then mobilize — in unison — behind that effort.

Since last Friday, I have been called on by many to issue a statement on the heated rhetoric between two critical camps in our county’s public education ecosystem. I have, so far, withheld public comment, instead choosing to talk with my constituents in District 4 so I can better understand their thoughts and feelings.

In one of those discussions, a parent asked me, “whose side are you on?” My answer, to them and the rest of Hamilton County, is that I’m on the side of our students and their families. I always have been, and I always will be.

That said, there are two matters in particular that I want to address.

The first has to do with the subject of “busing.” To the best of my knowledge, the concept of busing — an unsuccessful policy of the past — has not been advocated by anyone in close relation to the Hamilton County Department of Education. However, there are those who believe that to adequately address inequities in our schools, we have to consider new transportation options. I support efforts to solve our most significant deficiencies, and if enhanced transportation policy is a way to correct a problem, we have an obligation to explore the topic.

The second matter has to do with the liberal-versus-conservative language being injected into this episode. Simply put, it has no place in the discussion and needs to stop immediately. Ending school segregation is a nonpartisan matter, and we should all refuse the politicization of this debate. Politicization creates unnecessary roadblocks keeping us from resolving our most pressing needs, and we don’t need to build any more barriers — we inherited enough.

The idea of keeping the status quo in our schools and continuing to ignore the real problems we face as a community goes against everything I stand for. I was elected to the School Board touting, among other things, a dedication to equity. Halfway through my first term, I remain steadfast in my belief that as we better the opportunities for our most disadvantaged, we better the community as a whole.

In short order, we’ve already instituted some bold initiatives aimed at alleviating the equity imbalance in our area, including the creation of Future Ready Institutes, increasing open enrollment, boosting funding for ESL students, finding the best teachers out there for our Opportunity Zone schools, and more. I am proud of these, and I promise they are just the tip of the iceberg.

I will continue the attack on inequity and the fundamental ailments giving it continued life—like segregation.

As your school board representative, that will never change.

Statement from Lennon 

In today’s world of constant communication, it is very easy to lose sight of what is important, what is real, and what is meaningful. In the midst of sound bytes and confrontation, we risk ignoring what we should be focused on: the necessity of working together to create solutions for even the most divisive issues.

Despite recent distractions and conflict, and despite my own personal frustrations at the inharmonious stances expressed among other school board members, my goal remains the same.

I believe that a school board must be responsive and receptive to students, teachers, parents, business leaders, partnerships and the community at large.

We should encourage an open, nonpartisan dialogue and work together with the shared goal of ensuring all our students are given the same opportunity for success.

I believe our school board serves all of the students in the community; one student is no more or less important than another. We are a diverse community and should embrace that diversity, because doing so makes us all stronger.

Our schools are here to serve the educational needs of all the students. We are here to serve our schools.

Imagine if all of the opportunities, resources, and facilities were equitable for schools, students and teachers in all districts.

Imagine all the possibilities if we work together to make change happen, instead of focusing on the arguments that divide us.

When I decided to run for school board, I wanted to bring new ways of thinking, new perspectives, and innovation to the school board. I have always believed we should learn from the past, and keep our focus on ensuring ALL our students have the same opportunities.

It is difficult, at times, to move forward with the burdens of past failures, but inequities do still exist, and this is an issue we are obligated to continue to address.

I do believe that we should continue to partner with community-based organizations to expand what is already offered in our school system, while continuing to improve that system from within.

I am enormously encouraged by the recent strides made in our school systems through the collaborative efforts at HCDE.

When we work together, we create Future Ready Institutes that challenge the traditional approach to education in high schools by developing career-themed small learning communities.

When we work together, we bring complex, hands-on science and advanced problem solving into the classroom through partnerships with local organizations and businesses like PEF, Chattanooga 2.0, and Volkswagen.

When we work together, we bring more art into our students’ lives, we increase open enrollment in our schools, boost funding for ESL students, find the best teachers for our Opportunity Zone schools, and much, much more!

When we work together, we can create the educational opportunities our children need and deserve.

We should never say we can’t change something because it’s too expensive or complicated or difficult. We cannot dismiss the past, but must learn from history to ensure we do not repeat it. We have an obligation to acknowledge inequity and explore solutions. And work together to effect change that will benefit us all.

The inequities that affect our schools must be corrected for the benefit of every single student we can’t close our eyes to that.  As your school board member, I will continue to address these tough issues and have hard conversations about finding solutions.

Dr. Johnson is committed to make Hamilton County Schools the fastest improving school district in the state of Tennessee.

Change is coming to Hamilton County Schools to bring educational opportunities our children need and deserve.

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