The December meeting of the Signal Mountain Town Council was for the most part devoted to giving citizens another chance to voice their opinions and ask questions about forming a new school district separate from Hamilton County. More people interested in the subject came than could be admitted to the council room because of fire capacity and the crowd overflowed into the lobby.
Concerns of the residents are the same concerns of the council members.
The difference is that the majority of residents attending the meeting have already made up their minds one way or the other, and all but one council member has reserved their opinion until more is known about several topics of concern.
The council is trying to find answers to some questions that have been pending since the School System Viability Committee began its study. Uncertainty about the buildings, how students from Walden and unincorporated areas on the mountain could be included and assurances that needs for special education students would be met all continue to be major issues. The bottom line, said Mayor Chris Howley, is that "we are all working for the same thing, the best education for students. It’s never bad to look for improvements.”
A teacher at Thrasher Elementary with daughters in the Signal Mountain schools, citing exemplary experiences at the middle/high school for her children along with high ACT scores for Signal Mountain graduates, wondered “why we’re trying to fix something that’s not broken.” “I don’t know how you’d get better results than we’re getting now,” she said.
Reasons for opposition include concern that Hamilton County is able to provide programs that give special education students help that they need. The proposed budget created for a separate school system includes money to meet these needs; however, some parents advocating for their children say that there is no guarantee that an elected school board would follow through with the suggested use, especially if the budget is tight. Consistency is important in teaching these students, said another speaker, and it would be detrimental to her child for a new school board to try and figure out how to provide the services that Hamilton County already has available. “Unknowns scare me,” said another, ”I can’t support an independent system because of unknowns.”
Building issues were removed from scope of the SSVC study because the town had received an email from the Hamilton County Board of Education’s lawyer that Mayor Howley described as “not nice.” A letter of retraction was received later; however, the council pulled it off the table in order to get a legal opinion, said Mayor Howley. Because it is a legal issue, the SSVC would not have been able to answer it.
How to include students who live in Walden and unincorporated Hamilton County outside the town limits was a necessary condition that the SSVC was given for deciding if a new system would be viable, so those areas are figured into the plan that would break away from the county. Hamilton County, however, would remain responsible for providing education for those students. Because a quarter of the last graduating class received 30 or above on the ACT, why would the unincorporated areas want to spend extra money on a school when they already have one in hand that is excellent? questioned a speaker.
The mother of two children in the Signal Mountain schools said she was opposed to a separate system because it would pose an unnecessary financial situation on the town and its citizens. She said that it would limit choice for students from Signal Mountain who would have a lower priority for county magnet schools. “I’d like to have options,” she said. "I would be paying more and getting less school choice."
Another speaker told the council that there are plenty of people who do support the continuation of the study. She said some teachers and business owners in the town have been reluctant to give their opinions in public because it is such a hot button topic. A former executive director of the Mountain Education Foundation was at the meeting to give her own opinion after working with teachers, board and staff at the schools. She said she does not believe the study has anything to do with those employees and asked for continued research because in her experience, she said small districts work. She said there is no reason to have the opportunity and not look.
One citizen who is in opposition has started an online petition and later added a paper ballot. Since Oct. 21, she said there are 927 signatures, and 153, with additional comments, and it is still active. A copy of the petition at this point was given to the council.
A citizen, who said he has already voiced his opposition to breaking away from the county at past meetings, said the council needs to decide if there is adequate interest and make a decision whether to move forward with a referendum. The issue has created divisions in the town, he said, and delaying a decision will result in further divisions. If it passes, he said the next step should be developed by the elected school board.
A series of more meetings is being planned so more community members can be heard. A meeting with Dr. Bryan Johnson and the HCDE staff and school board will be scheduled near the beginning of January as well as several more informational question/answer meetings with the council.
In regular business, the council authorized the purchase of turn-out gear and breathing devices for the fire department in an amount not to exceed $32,000. With the opening of the new fire station, nine additional firefighters will begin training in January.
Rezoning property at 409 and 411 Wood St.,which is in the Highway Commercial District, was rezoned to allow building a daycare center. The recommendation to approve was made by the planning commission.
Brian Wright, CPA with Johnson, Murphy and Wright, presented the town’s audit report for 2017 giving Signal Mountain an unmodified opinion with no findings. This is the best that you can get, he said. Mayor Howley said this was "the best audit I’ve seen since I’ve been here," adding “accolades to Boyd and Carol.”