Roy Exum: A Signal Mountain Solution

Sunday, December 31, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

On Thursday this week there will be an important and meaningful gathering on Signal Mountain that holds the promise of all that we hope America to be. Over the past year the wonderful … and I mean it … Walden's Ridge community has become roiled and divided over a study to determine the viability of the four public schools within the town creating a new school district. The question? Should Signal Mountain shake loose the blundered decisions of a previously derelict and uncaring Hamilton County Department of Education, or is it more prudent to share with the now rejuvenated Public Schools of Hamilton County an exciting proposal that would benefit every child in the Signal Mountain community?

It is a valid question, as well as a brave quest by forward thinkers, to become “better.” Yet, as is the way with mankind when faced with change, there has been fear, selfishness, hope, despair, yearning, uncertainty, promise, anguish and questioning. Sadly, fear and ignorance have stilted what has become a brilliant study in an earnest effort to find a better way to educate the children in the community. Admit it -- when a mother’s child appears threatened, you’ll find emotion, resulting in senseless panic that breeds misinformation and unfounded rumor. Please, I understand it because it’s typical in today’s society but now it appears all was wasted energy.

This Thursday, all doubt, rumor and fear will be laid to rest when the Signal Mountain Town Council, the Hamilton County School Board, and county school representatives collectively present the entire community with the most brilliant suggestion any parent, student, taxpayer or American could ever dream. Each party, I am told, is excited, which indicates a true success of the total process.

While this is pure conjecture at this point because no decision nor vote has been counted, I believe when the plan is presented you’ll see unanimous approval and acceptance. Trust me, every single person will be relieved and gratified by what has been quite an experience. Based on the fact Signal Mountain and HCDE leaders will sit side by side on the dais, I believe you’ll see the Signal Mountain schools will remain in the HCDE family for the time being, that the HCDE leadership will recognize and support the fact the high-performing mountain schools can no longer be dragged down by a failing county entity that – in abject honesty -- has become plagued with inner-city flops, bureaucratic incompetence and a gross lack of leadership. This is hardly an insult, it is proven and well-documented fact and – candidly -- the sole reason Signal Mountain considered a break-away.

I have reason to believe that every person who attends Thursday’s meeting – especially the students at the middle/high school-- will hear a far different proposal and will be presented vivid proof that the Signal Mountain “community” means far more to all involved than just those within the town’s city limits. Everybody matters. The township, Walden, and the unincorporated have been subjected to scurrilous accusations and petty insinuation. This week you’ll learn those who have spread the venom have been wrong.

The HCDE, to be fair, has great promise with new and vibrant leadership, but in the last 15 years, the School Board and County Commission have allowed the public schools to become the worst metro district in the entire state. That’s a fact. Nobody wants to admit it, or worse, “own it,” but there are still some elected politicians who do not want to do anything about public education. Never forget that every county commissioner refused to raise taxes this summer to confront over $325 million in deferred maintenance for our schools and most – remember this – were party to three previous superintendents who have left prematurely in chaos and shame. The county commissioners can hem and haw but never forget each sat on their hands when the FY 2018 budget was presented.

Had just one within the HCDE School Board or the County Commission had the courage, Signal Mountain would have today an all-weather artificial turf football field and a completely donated $1 million tennis facility. But HCDE would not allow it – saying it wouldn’t be fair to the poor schools – and such “stinkin’ thinkin’” is a classic example why Signal Mountain has had quite enough of HCDE incompetence and total lack of interest. Signal Mountain was forced to look “outside the box” and most county officials – bewildered -- chose to ignore the obvious reason. As a result, all of Hamilton County has suffered instead of moving forward.

Pay attention. Sixty percent of the children in the third grade of Hamilton County public schools are still unable to read at grade level. The state is preparing to take over five of the worst performing schools in HCDE with even more in the pipeline. In candor it will take years to overcome the neglect that the County Commission and a milk-toast school board have allowed. Trust me, the great majority of Signal Mountain parents believe the other politicians downtown don’t give a rip about the Signal Mountain community. There is not one indicator of any kind to hint otherwise.

The County Commission’s stance on HCDE is “we just provide the money. We have no say in their decisions.” Really? The school board, in response, points to an embarrassing 1.9 percent increase in the education budget but has no power to accomplish anything … and does that quite well. Hamilton County children have suffered greatly by those quick to pass the buck yet endorse their monthly stipend with “for deposit only.” Our elected officials in Hamilton County have never been held accountable … that is hardly Signal Mountain’s fault but as perhaps the only community that has the wherewithal to challenge the decades-old system, the response is refreshing.

In the FY2018 budget, County Mayor Jim Coppinger presented the paltry education increase of 1.9 percent with the excuse, “The commission refused to increase taxes.” That is not pardonable to any parent. Signal Mountain residents, as well as others within the county, were shocked – 12 straight years of no tax increase and a $325 million in deferred maintenance on the school buildings! Not one elected official voiced a word. With such a marked lack of leadership and vision, it is no wonder Signal Mountain felt it best to escape such short-sighed nonsense and instead attempt do what is right and proper for its children.

A viability committee was formed and almost immediately recognized a definite need for a better solution. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley, easily the biggest hero in what will be the eventual outcome, insisted the town’s leadership listen and indeed it was a viable option. But when weighed on the scales, the over-riding opinion was to allow new superintendent Bryan Johnson one more chance to make some key changes that mountain parents have begged for unsuccessfully for years.

As Howley and Johnson soon met in private sessions, the whispers were the HCDE has a totally new attitude, this only after Signal had proved a break from HCDE was indeed viable. Whether it was the threat of breaking away or the fact we now have a Superman in charge of HCDE who has indicated the school district will not only fulfill the needs and then do far more, we’ll never know. But what does it matter? I believe it is the victory that counts and an ambitious partnership plan is the best thing to happen on the mountain in years.

The fact the Signal Mountain community has a blueprint of a viable, self-sustaining school district now shifts the onus to Superintendent Johnson and the HCDE. If the county school district continues to fail Signal Mountain, there will be no doubt by any resident that Signal Mountain should break off after trying mightily to make this solution work. Get this straight – HCDE has clearly abandoned Signal Mountain’s needs in the past decade. The feasibility study was not vindictive but a direct response to the community’s frustration. There are still some who are unable to connect the dots and want to cast the blame for the upheaval on Mayor Howley, Dr. John Friedl, and the Town Council – nothing could be further from the truth and Thursday’s outcome will prove it.

Unfortunately, there is collateral damage among neighbors that will take time to heal. The parents of special needs children took an unnecessary beating due totally to The Legion of the Miserable. Throughout the entire study, every single person involved who counts was 100 percent dedicated to making sure the unincorporated and Walden families would be included and not hurt in any possible way. Some still responded so horribly that now, on any given day, Mayor Howley can instantly recite how many days he has left in office.

The worst casualty is reflected by the fact that key Signal Mountain leaders now refuse to recognize nor meet with the school board representative. Dr. Johnson has assured Signal Mountain officials they will be adequately represented but the bitter rift is the best indicator that HCDE is further determined to make Thursday’s meeting a triumph for the students of Signal Mountain.

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