Rhonda Thurman: More Money Won't Fix The Problems In The Hamilton County Schools - And Response

Friday, June 14, 2019

“For the Children”, “Invest in our future”, “Our children deserve a first class education”, “Our teachers make less than all the counties around us”, “It will only cost a latte a day or a night a week eating out”, these statements show up at HCDE school budget time as sure as, “Have a nice day” at the bank, “My pleasure” at Chick-fil-a and “Thank you for shopping at Walmart”. These statements get tossed around to instill guilt in all who dare to want accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars they have already invested in the school system.

There is one difference in the budget cycle this year, however. UnifiEd. UnifiEd has taken their community organizing to a new level to push for a tax increase. First of all, they are not an educational organization, they are social justice warriors who pay young people to go door-to-door to push their socialist agenda. The leaders of UnifiEd are from out of town and came here to save us from ourselves. Because, like all social justice warriors, they know what is best for us.

I do not need UnifiEd to give me their “facts”, I research for myself. I have been in Hamilton County for 62 years and have a great amount of respect for its citizens and I refuse to play them for fools. So, I am going to lay out a few facts about the amount of money taxpayers have given the school system and what we have gotten for it. 

A 2006 document titled, “Hamilton County Secondary Priority Schools Resources Provided and Actions Taken”, shows the following schools - Dalewood Middle School, Chattanooga Museum Magnet (now closed-became Normal Park Upper), Orchard Knob Elementary, East Lake Elementary, Calvin Donaldson Elementary and Woodmore Elementary, received either all, or a vast majority of the following between 2004-2006: Lower student teacher ratio, system-wide fact-finding team, system-wide fact intervention team, added assistant principal; provided training for administrators in leadership, accountability and achievement, provided literacy consultant, secured literacy coach, provided coaching and training in team building for staff, provided professional development in math strategies and literacy instruction, secured family partnership specialist to work with families, provided consulting teacher, secured principal coaches, provided attendance incentives, secured literacy coaches, provided curriculum facilitators, provided reading interventionists for at-risk students, reconstituted school staff, added alternative classroom, implemented in-school suspension program (2 positions), and truant officers.

If a student was in the K-1st grade in any of the aforementioned elementary schools and they continued on to Brainerd or Howard, their high school feeder schools, they would have been seniors in 2015 or 2016. I went back and looked at the ACT scores for those two schools from the time of the merger in 1997, (before all of the millions of dollars were given these schools for all of the additional programs and positions), through 2012 (I have asked the administration for the ACT scores thru 2017 but have yet to receive them) to see if all of the additional positions and programs and millions of federal and grant monies made a difference in the academic experience of  these students.  This is what I found; in 1997 Howard’s ACT was 14.9 and Brainerd’s was 15.3. In 2011 Howard’s was 14.3 and Brainerd’s was 15.4.

A David Carroll article dated Feb. 23, 2015, states the following, “A leading researcher says Brainerd and Howard have no students prepared to succeed in college, because they do not meet the benchmarks for proficiency in all four ACT subject areas: English, math, reading and science.”

A 2006 document from the Offices of Research and Education Accountability titled “District Approaches to Improving Tennessee’s High Priority Schools”, states this sentence on the first page of the report, “The Hamilton County Department of Education had four schools on notice in the 2005-06 school year that failed to make adequate progress for three years in a row.” The report continues, “National and local funders have expressed a high degree of confidence in Hamilton County Schools, which has been awarded $90 million in competitive grants in the last few years.”

When HCDE budget numbers are discussed, it is important to understand the difference between the general-purpose budget and the total budget. The general-purpose budget is the money received from state and all county taxes. The total budget includes the general-purpose budget as well as federal money and all self-funded programs like nutrition and childcare. In 1997-98, the general-purpose budget was $193,885,632. The general budget in 2018-19 was $385,407,677. That is a difference of $191,522,045 almost double since the merger 21 years ago.

The #1 reason we have a teacher retention problem is student behavior. The #1 reason we have a bus driver retention problem is student behavior. The #1 reason parents put their children in private schools is fear for their child’s safety; here again, due to student behavior. So, if student behavior is our #1 problem you would think we would make it our #1 priority.

A School Retention and Academic Achievement Plan study was done in May 2008, by Dr. Robert Green, Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University, at the cost of $150,000. An article written by David Carroll about the Dr. Green study titled, “Brainerd, Howard Problems Blamed on Poor Reading Skills”, states that it revealed “one-fourth of Brainerd and Howard ninth-graders are over age (17-18 years-old). In interviews with current at-risk students, recent dropouts, and high school teachers, it was revealed that many of the young males never learned to read in elementary school.” How can that be when Benwood, Lyndhurst and PEF had a very visible physical and financial (millions of dollars) presence in these elementary schools for years?

The report also said that 97 percent of Brainerd males and 93 percent of Howard males in the 9th grade study score below a 3.0 G.P.A. The study recommend “a renewed emphasis on reading….Teachers interviewed for the study said many 17 and 18 year-old students either can barely read, or cannot read at all.”

Dr. Green said, “The students needed more positive male role models in schools, development of a black male academy, possible same-sex classes, more support from black businesses, professionals and churches, a student recovery class in each school, cultural and diversity training for teachers, better trained and highly paid teachers, and an expansion of vocational programs.”

Almost every one of these suggestions has been done including an all-male school, (Chattanooga Preparatory Charter School 2018).

In the study, later school starting times were not cited as a problem for truancy. However, some students interviewed said they were truant because, “They did not have a ride (to school) or because they had to stay at home and wait on someone ‘to fix the cable television’ or to take care of other responsibilities they had at home.

Dr. Green said, “Some parents do not care if their son goes to school, just as long as he is not at home.” He also says in some cases, “neither the students nor their parents can read.”

Can you imagine sitting in a literature, science, history, foreign language or Algebra class unable to read? Could it be that a lot of our behavior problems stem from the inability to read and comprehend?

To address the reading problem, most school systems analyze until they are paralyzed. They do not want to address existing problems until they compile all of the “data” to see what “corrections” need to be made. In many cases, by the time the data gets back, weeks of educational time has been lost. A vast majority of the time, all the administration needs to do is leave the teacher alone, let them do their job because a good teacher knows what 98% of their students need.

Each year we hear that the most important person in education is the classroom teacher. If that is true, and I believe it is, then let’s act like it. Instead of creating more administrators who do nothing more than require the teacher to do more paperwork so they can compile more “data” to justify their job, why not increase teacher’s pay?  

I like to keep things simple so let’s do a little math. It costs $2.5 million for the school system to get a one percent raise. One cent in property tax brings in $1 million. HCDE is asking to give a 2.5 percent (the other 2.5 percent is from the state) raise to all employees. That raise should cost taxpayers about 6.25 cents. Like I said earlier, if the classroom teacher is the most important person in a child’s education, why is only 6.25 cents of the proposed 34 cents property tax increase slated to go to teachers? (As a side note, even without the increase, HCDE will be getting an additional $9 million in growth making the total increase $43 million if the property tax passes.)

Nothing makes me shake my head more than to see teachers, administrators and county employees beg to get more of everybody else’s money. Principals, who are 12-month employees and on the clock, show up at Commission meetings, to make a case for themselves to get a raise. Teachers get giddy over a 2-3 percent raise and give high fives to administrators who are going to get twice as much raise as they do because that is what percentage raises do; they widen the gap between administration and teachers.

One way to avoid widening the gap is to do what Fred Skillern proposed years ago and I have brought up at school board meetings on more than one occasion. Why not find out the salary of the highest paid teacher in the system and figure a five percent raise on that amount. Then give that amount to all certified personnel across the board. Doing this will insure that administrators salaries do not go up at a higher rate than classroom teachers.

When I make a vote on the school board, I think about how it will benefit education and how much money it is going to cost taxpayers. For instance, just this last year the school board voted to spend an additional $1 million to change bus services. That is one penny property tax.  The Board also voted to spend $500,000 to hire a firm to do a facilities analysis. That is half a penny. We voted to hire a firm for $30,000-$40,000 to help us with the bus contact and routing and voted for another $390,000 for 11 new positions in January of this year and we added five new administrative positions last year at a cost of $300,000. All of these votes we make add up. A vote here and a vote there and before you know it, you are talking about real money.

How much does it cost to teach children to read? Obviously, since we are still graduating students who read on a third-grade level, it cannot be done for $400,000,000 a year. How in the world did our founding fathers, those during the depression and home-schoolers learn to read without all of the millions of dollars and piles of “data”?

The bottom line is this, until a student is made to behave in class and have respect for their teacher, and students and their parents value an education, no amount of money will be enough. We are trying to fix problems with money that money will not fix.  

If you think more money will fix our education woes, I look forward to seeing your proof. Then tell me how much is it going to cost the taxpayers in Hamilton County.

Rhonda Thurman

* * *

It is beyond me why no one is listening to the only person on the HCSB who appears to be paying enough attention to know what the real problem is. 

Rosemary Workman

 


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