Joe Smith: Now Is The Time To Support Public Education

Sunday, June 23, 2019

In November of 2016, I was appointed to complete the unexpired term of then District 3 School Board member Greg Martin. At that time, Dr. Martin had won a special election to the Hamilton County Commission. When I came onto the school board, HCDE was operating without a superintendent, the system was just coming out of the terrible tragedy at Ooltewah High School, the system was struggling with transportation contracts, the system had no working long term strategic plan in place, and it was time to begin work on the budget for 2018, in addition to a number of pressing issues facing public education in Hamilton County. 

My very first board meeting was a weekend board retreat held at a local high school. Representatives of the Tennessee School Board Association were present to facilitate the beginnings of our discussion of our strategic plan which is now in place: Future Ready 2023. We talked about a number of things over that weekend, but being a brand new board member the one thing that really stood out to me personally was accelerating student achievement, in particular, social and emotional supports, behavior supports and the need for additional counselors and social workers. One might ask, of all the pressing issues our public education system was faced with at that time (many of the same issues still pressing today), why did that particular piece of the weekend retreat discussion grab this brand new school board members’ attention? 

My bride of 44 years, whom I choose to call Ms. America, and I have raised two biological children of our own as well as an additional 19 children. Some of those 19 were children in state custody and part of the foster care system. Some were just kids that a single mother or grandmother had signed over physical custody and we took them into our home. Every single one of those 19 kids presented with issues such as truancy, behavior, academic and emotional/social problems and some even with some physical health concerns. We always gave those kids the option to stay in their current school or transfer to the zone school where our home is located. Most of the kids chose to stay in their home school with their friends. There were times when Ms. America would load those kids up in our old Chevrolet minivan and take those kids to several different schools…. one year (2005), to seven different schools. Some of those schools identified as underperforming or failing schools. It was quite the challenge to get those kids to school, to doctor’s appointments, to therapy and counseling appointments, to after school academic tutorial sessions and to many other additional supports they needed to be ready to be a learner at school.

After being in our home for a while truancy went away, behaviors in and out of classroom improved, grades improved, hope restored and with some of those children for the first time Hope was birthed. Same friends, same teachers, same under performing schools, the only difference was the support, encouragement and accountability.

I agree with many who have said that the government and the schools cannot be or should be expected to be parents. But I also know that as a public education system, we are mandated both federally and by our great state to accept and provide education opportunities for all children and even to those who don’t want an education. We are further mandated by state law if minor kids are not in school (truant) to find them and get them in school. Once we get them in school, what then? Many of these truant acting out, oppositional defiant young people just do not have a Ms. America in their lives to get them to the counseling, tutoring, doctors, and other supports they need to become a learner, so they struggle and disrupt, and in many cases, just drop out of school, become a statistic and end up in jail or prison.

By the way, of those 19 children, 18 of them today are productive contributing tax paying members of society. Why? Because they were able to access the supports they needed. If many of these type kids don’t get the support they need at the school house they will not get it at all. If a parent or guardian is so irresponsible to not even get their child to school they sure will not get them to other supports such as counseling.  

In 2017 during my first few months on the school board, the interim superintendent at that time presented to us a budget that was $19 million upside down. Even as a new board member I insisted, and was able to get most of my peers on the board to join me, that we present to our funding authority (Hamilton County Commission) a balanced budget. At that time the school board had not gone to the commission with a balanced budget in over a decade. With all the problems HCDE was faced with, that I referenced at the very beginning here, I thought it was critical that this board begin to demonstrate fiscal responsibility and earn community trust.

I tell kids all the time that trust is not something that is just given it is based on observable behavior.  So, in 2017 and again in 2018 the HCDE board has gone to the Hamilton County Commission with balanced budgets I emphasize prior to 2017 it had been over 10 years since that happened. During this same time frame we hired a new superintendent, we met the state of Tennessee at the county line and pushed back state takeover of some failing schools, we achieved the highest graduation rates since 2013 now at 86.5 percent, we have 17 Reward schools and 25 Level 5 growth schools, and we are seeing marked improvement according to our benchmark assessments all over Hamilton County.

I think this HCDE BOARD, superintendent, and staff have begun to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, accountability, and earning public trust. We have the right leadership, there is a lot of healthy momentum in our schools right now. Let’s keep it going. Some have said, even some who do not support this budget, the system is doing some good things and improving but we need to see more and now is not the time for additional funding. I would simply assert when is the time? Other than yearly growth monies that meet inflation, HCDE has not realized any new operational funding in 15 years.  

There are some things in this budget with which I might not completely agree. However, after months of community meetings, board work sessions, fuss, cuss and discuss and (in some cases) compromise, over all, I am very supportive of the budget we have come up with. 

Our county mayor and county commissioners are all good people who most of them I know on a personal level and have all supported me, my ministries, kids and families over the years. All of these men and women who serve as county commissioners want what is best not only for our students but for all citizens in Hamilton County. They have a very difficult job. I thank them and praise God for their service. I can publicly promise each and every one of them that however they vote related to this issue they will certainly still have my respect and my friendship and we will continue to move forward in our respectful roles of servant leadership. However, at the same time, I urge our county commissioner to vote in favor of County Mayor Coppinger’s budget. This will be a vote in favor of doing all we can to support each and every one of the almost 45,000 students in Hamilton County. 

Finally, in closure, I wish to be perfectly clear about one thing, my decision to support this budget and my call for our County Commission to approve it is based on my own knowledge of the needs of our students, teachers and schools and my belief that now is the time to support public education in Hamilton County. Contrary to what some have said, UnifiEd has in no form or fashion influenced my opinion. Listening to educators, trusting our superintendent and his team (based on observable behavior), my own experience of raising two kids of my own plus 19 others, 30 plus years experience working with kids from all walks of life from all over Hamilton County, and prayer are the things that have influenced me. 

Over the recent few weeks and days I was confronted with a very serious illness and quite candidly almost expired. Praise God I am slowly on the mend now.  As I lay in that ICU bed I was reminded of the truth and wisdom of my own words over the years.

This ain’t home, we are all just passin through, go love on somebody.    

Joe Smith
School Board Member, Parent, Grandparent, and Senior Adult Taxpayer 

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