Signal Mountain residents continued the debate on whether to pull out from the county schools at a forum held Tuesday night that was organized by Signal residents who are interested in improving education within the Hamilton County school system. The purpose of the meeting was to give members of the community, including interested residents living outside the Signal Mountain city limits, the opportunity to ask town officials questions about the potential formation of a school district separate from Hamilton County.
In December, 2016, an ad hoc group of citizens approached the commissioners after having done an independent study to see if local control would have a positive effect on education provided to Signal Mountain students. The town council, believing a more detailed study would be worthwhile, formed the Signal Mountain school viability committee (SMSVC) which determined that a separate school system would be viable, excluding some questions yet to be answered, including if the existing buildings could be used and how students from Walden and Hamilton County, outside the city limits could be included.
The purpose of the entire endeavor is about the operation and management of Hamilton County, said Vice Mayor Dick Gee, and if their expectations and desires match up with those of Signal Mountain. There is no movement and the council is not advocating for breaking away, he said to the audience of 80-90 people. There is no formal time line or end point to the study, but “it is unfolding and creating itself,” he said.
He said the issue is not about a small district versus large, but local versus corporate.
Jim Hall, one of the mountain residents who worked alongside Hamilton County in 2005 to get Signal Mountain Middle High built, questioned what is in it for the students. He asked what needs to be done if the current system is not serving the students. The driver needs to be the students, and he said the citizens need to know what will be gained and what will be lost as well as if the town can afford it.
The ad hoc committee was concerned with the long term future funding, and there was little to suggest there would be any changes in funding from the county in the future, said Mr. Gee, and that presented an opportunity to explore the options. Councilman Dan Landrum added that success is not all about funding. He said Signal Mountain has a safe environment, an excellent curriculum and strong family support systems. The schools are already strong because of the existing structure, he said, but it always can be pushed higher.
The perception that Signal Mountain will be closing itself off from the rest of the community because of race and social status is a concern for some who attended the meeting. Teaching students to become global citizens is not removing them from problems, said a teacher from SMMHS. From the beginning, said Town Manager Boyd Veal, the goal has been to identify ways to improve education and increase diversity of students by including other mountain residents. Not everyone that lives on Signal Mountain is wealthy, he said.
“We’re just not racially diverse up here, so the school would not be different than the community it serves,” and Hamilton County determines the school district, said Mr. Gee, “We are what we are.”
Mr. Gee said it is a problem that there is no interaction between Signal Mountain citizens and the Hamilton County school board.
"We need to be more involved with Hamilton County said Mr. Landrum, "We’re not challenging them."
"It is our obligation to lobby on behalf of our kids and not just accept what Hamilton County wants us to have," said Vice Mayor Gee.
The reduction in services for special needs students is a fear for many who spoke at the meeting. The proposed budget has a reduced special education staff and a smaller central office, which would both contribute to fewer services for “children on the frayed margins,” said one father of a special needs child. Another speaker asked to have an alternative budget that would include the services that have been omitted. "We will absolutely ask for that," said the vice mayor,. "It is part of the process which has just begun."
There is some confusion about the transparency of who is funding what at the school, said one mother with three children in the Signal Mountain schools. She said that it is Signal Mountain Social Services, not HCDE that provides special needs funding. She added that she has had disappointments with Hamilton County including the lack of tutoring that
is provided and the condition of other school facilities she has seen. She said, "I’ve called representatives on the school board and tried to be an activist, but have gotten nowhere."
In response to one man’s accusation that the public is not getting the real facts and straight answers about the findings of the SMSVC, Vice Mayor Gee replied that the report is public and available for all to see, plus there have already been two public meetings. “There has been an honest and good faith effort to make it public and explain it," he said. "The council will not vote until it is thoroughly disseminated. Nothing is being held back, it is being handled the way a responsible government should do it, to make sure that everybody has adequate information."
Citizens need to talk to the council members, and let the council know their concerns, said Mr. Landrum.
The next work session of the Signal Mountain Town Council will be Friday. On Monday, the SVCC will be joined by representatives from the Memphis area school districts in a forum regarding the possibility of forming an independent school system. This is not a town function, said the town manager, but it will be held at the municipal gym. Citizens will be welcome.