Roy Exum: School Board Shoves Back

Friday, July 21, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The Hamilton County School Board, told that ‘no’ was not an option three months ago when state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen arrived to take over five floundering public schools, may have to ask the Governor to call out the Tennessee Guard. A very vocal School Board shoved a bitter ultimatum right back into McQueen’s lap during a work session Thursday night and showed it is serious about repelling the state’s unwanted help.

McQueen has said she will decide later this summer if she’ll use her much-maligned Achievement School District (ASD) to take over the five inner-city schools completely or form a lop-sided partnership with the HCDE. She had hoped the School Board would be in favor of the partnership, but last night there were some who almost defied her to carry out her threats.

JoAnn Favors, a longtime state legislator, called the ASD “dysfunctional” and in a well-thought-out way urged the School Board to reject any state overtures, adding that she’s asked the state to comment on the legality of a wacky partnership where the state has a majority controlling interest and when there is no law in place for un-elected school boards. McQueen’s proposal was repeatedly slammed by one speaker after another.

The financial plan -- with McQueen leaving office at the end of Governor Bill Haslam’s final term in 2018 – includes state funding for the first six months of a five-year trial. “Nobody in business would dare such a venture,” said school board member Joe Wingate. “That simply makes no sense … a new governor may have different ideas.”

It was immediately obvious all nine members of the board are adamantly opposed to an ASD take-over and feel very strongly McQueen’s “partnership” equation is unbearable. Bryan Johnson, the new superintendent, should have been given more time to speak but board members were so vocal he could hardly get a word in.

Johnson showed his early leadership when – after recoiling at the emotion early – suggested presenting a “counter option” to the state school leader, “and taking a look at how we might adapt our list and her list into one we can agree on.” Johnson plans on meetings with various stake-holders and negotiating with McQueen in 30-to-45 days.

But that will be a tough sale. The five schools she has targeted have been poor performers for the last 15 years and, when she points to a meager 1.9 percent budget increase in education on the FY2018 budget, it is hard to take Hamilton County’s pleas for another several years of grace with much validity.

Several years ago $10 million was sent by the state to the HCDE and it was so mismanaged it was reported some money had to be returned. While inexcusable – as was the most recent of three failed regimes – it was equally puzzling why the state didn’t demand regular accountability as it watched Hamilton County slip to the worst metro school district in the state.

Granted, McQueen has been to Chattanooga repeatedly in recent months and detected a greater awareness for public education. She has lauded the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative and admits “there is no way” she can match educators like Orchard Knob Elementary principal LaFrederick Thirkill, she is adamant she has an obligation on both the state and national levels.

What that “obligation” entails is up for debate and there is no penalty nor punishment involved. As far as we can learn, the whole take-over is at the whim of the Commissioner. It stands to reason Bryan Johnson, who will have been on the job for less than a month when public school resumes Aug. 10, should have an opportunity to prove his mettle.

Johnson met with the five principals of the schools targeted by McQueen and said he was impressed with the group. It has been said he wants to approach a “community school” concept and is noted for his innovative leadership.

The City Council is expected to present a resolution requesting a delay to the state next week. But what everybody really wants is to find out is McQueen’s reaction because suddenly she’s ever more on a slippery slope.

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