Prior to Tuesday evening’s District 9 School Board Forum, County Commissioner and former school board member Dr. Steve Highlander iterated that he was looking for someone who will work with the district’s families and the community. As it turned out each of the eight candidates vying for the position all expressed this characteristic in their comments and answers to questions posed by community members.
In what was most likely the most important question asked at the forum, every candidate replied that they were in favor of a local search for the next school superintendent.
They favored transparency and open meetings to help guide the board in its process.
While most favored a background in education other qualities listed were business and administrative experience.
The County Commission is set to choose Dr. Highlander’s successor at their meeting on Aug. 4. The District 9 School Board seat was vacated when Dr. Highlander was selected to fill the same district’s seat on the Commission when Chester Bankston resigned to move to Florida.
The candidates are:
Patrick D. Lee II - an official of Tanslee Turf and Tire
James Brent Walker - a district manager for the State Lottery
Patrick Hampton - former official with Hamilton Flourishing
Pam Womack - adjunct professor at Lee University
Roddey M. Coe - IT manager at Suburban Manufacturing in Dayton
Charles Kenneth Lawson - retired electrician at the county schools
Gary Kuehn - former Harrison Bay Vocational principal
William A. House III – assistant manager with EPB Employee Credit Union
All of the candidates are residents of District and many are life-long community members with deep roots to the community.
Mr. Lawson has lived his entire life in the district with children and grandchildren who have matriculated through the Ooltewah schools. He told the forum that, “My experience is with maintenance in the school system and with the issues we face with the facilities it gives me a unique perspective.”
Having spent 44 years in the community and having three sons graduate from District 9 schools, plus 32 years as an administrator were among the qualifications listed by Mr. Kuehn. “I do what’s best for the students,” he said, when describing his approach to education. He continued, “I believe in strong educational practices and I’m also a problem solver.”
Ms. Womack told the forum that she is a product of Central High School and is a 1975 graduate. She taught in the Hamilton County school system for 16 years at Snow Hill Elementary and a total of nine different schools in her career.
She said, “I know the schools in this district.” After a heading up a local magnet school and a retirement, the long-time educator took on the role of teacher recruiter, where “I looked for the best, most educated teachers; the best fit for our students. She is currently a faculty member at Lee University in the College of Education.
Mr. Hampton described himself as as a minister and education activist and said he is a conservative. He has served as the Youth Advisor with Chattanooga Goodwill and as a substitute history teacher at Ivy Academy.
He said, “I am here because I am a concerned parent.” He went on to tell those present that he supports school choice and making room for all types of schools in the system. He will fight against the inclusion of CRT and gender identity education within the system. Referring to those tonics, he said, “We are creating children whose future is over before it begins.” He continued, “I will be a solid wall on the school board to protect our children.”
Mr. House touted his experience in the financial world and the need for more oversight on the budget and spending within the entire district. His comment was, “We have not been good stewards of the funds received.” He expressed frustration in the fact that District 9 did not have a voice in the selection of the interim superintendent.
While saying he is an outsider to the school system he does know that his own experience with the people within the system has been mixed, some good, some bad. He wants to be on the fight for children with disabilities, as well as all children in our schools
Another life-long resident of District 9, Mr. Walker had four daughters graduate from Central. He said he was excited to see eight people want to put their hat in the ring for this position. He commented, “This school board seat is an extension of the community, to speak for the students and parents.”
A co-founder of the Ooltewah/Harrison Education Association, Mr. Walker has a love for fund raising and giving scholarships to students. His concern is that, “I don’t think parents feel they can have a say with the school board.”
Mr. Lee gave his reason for seeking the vacant seat as he and his wife have recently taken on some kids that needed a home and through the trials of the pandemic worked to see that they were up to where they need to be grade level-wise. He touted his diverse work background and said, “I feel like I have a lot offer as a board member.” He also felt that a trend towards vocational training is important.
An Army veteran and court appointed advocate, Mr. Coe listed multiple political and board appointments as his qualifications. He has ties to several local legislators that he feels would be beneficial as a board member and in 2018 he received recognition from the Tennessee General Assembly.
According to Commissioner Highlander, “The School Board has three responsibilities: Have one employee, the superintendent; approve funds, not raise them; and, set policies.” All eight candidates spoke to those responsibilities throughout the forum.”
One of the first questions posed by forum emcee Lebron Sterchi was what are the three greatest challenges facing Hamilton County schools? The recovery of learning levels following the pandemic was high on everyone’s list while several ranked eliminating social issues, such as CRT and white privilege training along with the hiring of a new superintendent as their top three.
Many felt that getting parents involved with their children’s education was extremely important. How to follow CDC protocols and the issue of masking for children was also given credence.
When it came to a question of supporting the separation of city and county schools most felt it should be left up to the voters. Individual thoughts went as follows:
Mr. Kuehn said he’d rather see the city government give more support to the school system, that Chattanooga has neglected certain responsibilities. Mr. Walker took it a bit further saying, “20 years ago, Chattanooga quit on their kids. The ripple effect of that is still hitting us. They never gave the money they were supposed to.”
Mr. Hampton’s comment was, “If separating the schools helps the city and county we should do it.” Mr. Lee, however, said, “I don’t see an advantage in two separate school systems.”
Both men said they would vote their constituents’ wishes in the matter.
A big issue all across Hamilton County is the question of open enrollment. When asked if they would support as long as the student provided their own transportation and maintained good attendance and discipline, the candidates had varying answers.
Ms. Womack voiced her opinion that, “It would be too hard managing numbers.” Mr. Hampton said he would support it as he believes in school choice. Mr. House, Mr. Walker, Mr. Lee, Mr. Coe and Mr. Kuehn all agreed they would support open enrollment, while Mr. Lawson said it was a great idea but not feasible and that the system could not sustain it.
Mr. Hampton voiced his being in favor of school consolidation, citing the enrollment numbers of Tyner and Brainerd High Schools. He went on to say that we should stop pouring extra money into failing schools. Mr. House said we should stop teaching social issues and get back to education and change our mindset on how we do business.
A parent being able to speak up without fear of retribution was a point Mr. Walker made, along with the need to work within the budget. Along that same line, Mr. Coe wants the board to start listening to parents and teachers and stop the bloat at the central office, along with developing a plan for open enrollment. Mr. Lee asked the question, “Why aren’t all schools magnet schools?”
Mr. Lawson agreed with the need to establish more parental involvement and would like to see the community change its perspective on our school system by having a better view of it. He would also like to see us keep a superintendent more than four years, Mr. Kuehn listed parent and PTA attendance as critical, along with growing our own teachers and leaders and letting our best teachers teach struggling students rather than our best students.
Ms. Womack said she would like to start seeing different types of schools, giving students more options and saw a need to stop talking bad about the district by the news media and parents alike. She would also like to see a change in compensation methods so that exceptional teachers are rewarded,