Roy Exum: Signal’s Bigger Problem

Sunday, September 3, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

With a huge public meeting scheduled for this Thursday, where Signal Mountain’s departure from the Hamilton County Department of Education will be discussed as it is being dissected, the vibrant Walden’s Ridge community has a bigger problem. Town mayor Chris Howley told me last week he has no plans to run for re-election. “I’m one-and-done,” he said. “Believe me, I am no politician.”

Excuse me, sir… As an avid observer since the radical idea towards education for the mountain’s young was hatched, Howley has proven to be the ideal skipper in a land where, suffice it to say, there are more chiefs than Indians. His level thinking, his business acumen and his strong backbone is thus far Signal Mountain’s treasure – the mere thought of splitting public schools from the county enough to tear the community in half.

Calm heads and prayers at the churches need to prevail on the school issue. With the streets, sewers and … hello! zoning … in other pressure cookers on a hot stove, wise men must beg him to stay for another term because what’s coming next ain’t going to be easy. It’s just that right now the school decision is monumental with the entire state watching.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger has called for a public meeting this Thursday (6:30 p.m. at the high school) to “air” why Signal Mountain is studying --- not ‘threatening’ – to form its own school district. Few have any idea just exactly how complex and challenging is the solution to one simple question that had to be asked: What is best for our children?

Chris spent over 25 years in the business sector (was a big part of Republic Parking’s success) so this week we sat down and he carefully explained to me the motivations, the reasons, and perhaps some solutions why – get this straight – those on Signal Mountain want the best possible education for their children. Who among us in every neighborhood in America, Europe, and Asia does not?

The mayor was first approached by some concerned parents with the idea they could go it better than the Hamilton County Department of Education. Are you kidding me? The HCDE is among the worst school districts in the state and Tennessee is among the worst states in the country. “We don’t want to be the best of the worst of the worst,” he said in a measured voice, “but … wait … we are just studying an alternative. I give you my word I am not on either side of this issue but I have found if you don’t listen, you lose.”

To cut to the chase, Signal Mountain has two distinct groups. Those with children in the two elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school, who want to form their own district. Those who have no children, or who send their children to private schools, ask “Why bother?”

I’m going to tell you why. In the past 15 years HCDE has become arrogant, incapable of decisions, performed horribly, has had admittedly-dismal leadership (both ‘central office’ and school board) and done an unsatisfactory job of meeting the district’s needs. We know this, we just don’t want to admit it.

But just as the district failed the inner-city iZone schools, the HCDE failed the high-performing mountain schools as well. That’s no surprise. During this time, Signal Mountain residents became so concerned they are “the best of the worst of the worst,” they are carefully studying if is now the time to do something about it.

Because state test scores confirm it, here’s another fact: Several other areas in the district are watching Signal Mountain closely because they have the growing feeling a star-studded committee – that has already compiled a 94-page report based on truth and facts – may be ready to offer a better solution. This isn’t just Signal Mountain. Other towns within Hamilton County are keenly interested and in close contact with Signal Mountain leaders.

For example: On Lookout Mountain there is one lone school – Lookout Mountain Elementary being among the best in the entire state. But then the staggering majority is ‘forced’ to attend private schools, the alternative being Lookout Valley Middle and High School. Face it: Lookout Mountain parents would jump at the chance to attend Signal Middle and High School instead. What’s a bus ride compared to that choice? The towns of Red Bank, Soddy Daisy and Sale Creek want to look hard at a new district and East Ridge is looking.

There is a deep and genuine concern is the county’s Department of Education cannot, or will not, meet the needs of vastly different communities. Think about it. The County Commission ups the public education budget 1.9 percent after two years of frenzied hogwash from people who only “talk.” The county schools have had no viable support in 10 years without a tax increase. Connect the dots.

As any parent across the county can see, this is why Signal Mountain launched its exhaustive study and other communities within the county are holding their breaths. Howley just shakes his head and smiles, deferring comment on outside schools, but I know from whence I speak.

“When we first sat down with concerned parents and some community leaders, I was intrigued by what they had to say. So we based the whole scope of our efforts,” he said, this on four criteria … mind you, that the mayor demanded must be factually proven:

* -- “Can we provide a better education for our children than they are receiving from HCDE?

* -- “Can we have a district that will include everybody, both from the incorporated town and the neighboring unincorporated areas? This is a real big part of what we all want …

* -- “Is the goal of what we want feasible and can it withstand the long term?

* -- “And, this must be revenue-neutral. Can it stand on its own from Day One?”

According to the updated report, its budget approved by state officials and the Hamilton County Department of Education, it most certainly can. But there is this: the (Signal) Mountain Education Fund, where private dollars from the community are added to supplement the mountain schools, gave $529,718 towards the four schools in 2016-17.

But in the past five years, donations have fallen 25 percent. That’s sobering. What’s scarier is the overall student population at the same four schools has declined. The private schools have thrived drawing children from Signal Mountain because HCDE has faltered. This isn’t cruel, or unkind; it is fact.

“I’ve talked to (new supt.) Bryan Johnson and he is really good,” said the Mayor. “We are going to keep a dialogue and he recognizes our frustrations, what has occurred to public education in Hamilton County, and I feel he sees the true picture of education in our mountain community.”

So let’s look at it another way – Hamilton County has forever been like a Southern family. It is as diverse and as convoluted as any blood line you ever saw. But the 12 schools in “The Innovation Zone” have little in common with Signal Mountain and, when Signal Mountain has repeatedly asked the HCDE for permission to do this or that, the ineptness at the central office replies, “Sorry, you can’t do that … that isn’t fair to the other schools that can’t afford it.”

The Mayor is deeply hurt that state and national accounts of Signal Mountain’s study are based on race, ‘white flight.’ That is completely false. “I never even thought of that and neither did those on our committee. This has never been about any other people, solely what’s right for us. There are more people on Signal Mountain who want the inner city schools to succeed than you can possibly imagine,” he said, “and I’ve caught myself wondering several times – as I’ve studied community education – if some things we’ve uncovered might benefit these other schools.”

Howley believes new Supt. Johnson understands the bureaucratic logjams within HCDE. “I hope I have convinced him my mind is not made up to go either way. We gave him a copy of our updated Viability Report – it’s on the town’s website – and we are going to be in close contact throughout this process.”

John Friedl, a Professor Emeritus at UT-Chattanooga, has headed the mountain’s Viability Committee and the group has thrilled the mayor. “They’ve taken on this project in a way that is tremendously rewarding to everyone even remotely involved,” said Howley. “We knew going forward this was going to take a lot of work but the committee’s attitude, its response and its accomplishments all go back to the one simple question: What is best for our children?”

The Mayor says, "The first draft of the completed Viability Study is expected at the end of the month. It will be some time before anything will be definite and we’ll definitely have a town vote after we try to have some town meetings to exchange ideas. Until we get a plan in place it is hard to debate it and Supt. Johnson has indicated he want to be part of what we do in every way possible.”

Regretfully, Howley says the misinformation on Signal Mountain’s ever-legendary “grape vine” is bothersome but is part of the process. “I think this Thursday’s meeting will be a good chance to explain what the committee has done and why this is more about looking at an alternative solution instead of leaving Hamilton County’s Department of Education.”

“I was criticized for even looking into this but I’ve got children in the high school, the middle school and grammar schools. I want the very best for them and their classmates.”

And that is why wise men must start now in encouraging Chris Howley to drive Signal Mountain’s education renewal. Nobody knows which way it will go but everybody knows it will no longer stand still.

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