Roy Exum: A Letter & My Reply

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The other day I got a wonderful letter from Franklin McCallie, who is far more perceptive and knowledgeable than I am (about any and every thing). He knows I am unable to make any sense of where a lop-sided "partnership" with the state is touted as “helping us.” Here we have five poorly-performing public schools and the very idea of spending “at least $5 million” when we aren’t required to do so, not by any measure, is absolutely nuts in my mind.

But Franklin is a thinker. He comes from the greatest family of educators in Chattanooga’s history yet he learned to teach at Howard, where he was also the principal and where his continued love for the inner-city child reveals him as the most genuine of all the experts in the entire parade. His impassioned plea to the County Commission on behalf of these very children last month was brilliant – although the commission remained steadfast against any tax increase.

Last Thursday he was among a group that School Board member Tiffanie Robinson invited to sit with Commissioner Candice McQueen. As ever, his viewpoints in an email to me were superb. Allow me to share some excerpts before a reply:

* * *

“One of my main points about the negative of ‘the state taking over complete control of our schools’ is that when you leave our people out – this includes our educators and our citizens – you do nothing for bringing the entire community along on the mission and the journey that must be made after the five ‘focus years’ are over,” Dr. McCallie wrote. “Thus, the ‘partnership’ with the school district sounds so much better.

“I, too, questioned the need for another administrator in charge of the five schools. But I thought about the fact that if one person is responsible for working with the five schools, he or she will certainly put more emphasis on everything that must be done to bring true education to the children of these five schools. I don't like spending the money on an extra administrator, but that money will probably come from the allotted iZone money, rather than taking away from our needs within all our other schools.

“The other thing about which I questioned Commissioner McQueen was the separate ‘Board of Education.’ Why could not our own Board of Education be the one for these eyes on our five schools?” Franklin wrote.

“The answer she gave that seemed most authentic is that it sometimes takes so long for a request to get through our Board of Education that we might miss out on new ideas and new requests which need greater alacrity. If this separately allocated and focused board moves quickly on the requests made by the new administrator and the five principals and their staffs, then that's the best answer for the need for this separate board.

“I am not telling you that I definitely know the best for these five schools at this point. But I do know that I am greatly disappointed that the school district did not spend all the money allotted for the iZone schools the last time we did this, and I can understand that Commissioner McQueen felt something new had to be done. What she is proposing with a year's long planning lead-in before this program starts and for a true partnership with the Hamilton County schools might just be what is best now. “

“What we all know is that we cannot continue to let these children fail. They deserve better.”

* * *

I am solidly with Franklin: we can’t fail to educate any of our children, most especially when that appears to be the only ticket out of poverty. I believe we are at a critical point in public education but before we make our iZone schools our priority, we need to fix Hamilton County’s continuing and frustrating disregard for education in our county. Over 60 percent of the FY2018 budget goes to education, but how can you tell?

I never attended a School Board meeting before January of 2016, this after the rapes of several Ooltewah High athletes and an obvious cover-up. In the weeks that followed, what I discovered was equally ludicrous. The entire system was a cover-up and Chattanoogans had no idea how horribly the School Board had allowed the current and past administrations to go with obviously no oversight.

The Chattanooga 2.0 report was horribly revealing and, when the superintendent actually hid a scathing state report from the school board, he quit one day after it was revealed. You wouldn’t believe the reaction. Everybody was mad and angry. There must have been 50 symposiums and summits and presentations. “We want change!” the public cried, and the School Board launched a search for a new superintendent amid a lot of pomp and circus.

Now think about what “really” happened. It took 15 months to hire Bryan Johnson, whose first day was Monday. Last month the Hamilton County Commission gave the public schools a 1.9 percent increase. We have $230 million in deferred maintenance and any buildings now sick are going to get sicker. The Department of Education gave the Commission an urgent list of items not on a “balanced budget” – about $24 million -- and not a one was paid because there is no money.

To be candid: In the past year and a half neither the County Commission nor the School Board has changed in any tangible way that I can see. Let’s face it … 15 months to hire a super … a 1.9 percent increase … not one new school being built … McQueen dropped her bomb back in April and this Thursday – a full three months later – the board will finally talk about it.

It is little wonder Candice McQueen is deeply concerned over the status quo. I know Franklin McCallie and I most certainly are.

Our five iZone schools are a small matter when combined with what the County Commission and the School Board have done to the Department of Education. We’ve got a huge mess and – right in the middle of this morally bankrupt system – Candice decides it is time to take five schools away. That’s wrong and, rather than throw more good money after bad, we need to rethink any type of take-over.

There is no way we can justify the millions it will cost. There is no way the chaos will not affect 2,300 children when – in honesty – there is no valid charge nor rules in place that cite it must be done. None. Jill Levine, the school’s Director Curriculum, presented a list to me that clearly shows a sterling effort was made at all five iZone schools in the last year.

I spent an hour with Mayor Jim Coppinger and Commissioer McQueen last Thursday and I am tremendously impressed with her. I am sure she has some good ideas but I am equally certain we can achieve far more for far less expense, less drama, and less ego. I am certain of it.

Franklin McCallie needs to share how he thinks Bryan Johnson can best navigate our school system out of the shallows, and oh what I would give if he would tell us how to get education into the forefront of every conversation. Right now the ugly truth is that we have a dire situation with 43,000 children depending on each of us.

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