Opinion: Hamilton County Board of Education needs more leaders and fewer talkers, especially on school facilities

Staff File Photo By Olivia Ross / School board member Ben Connor, left, makes a point alongside Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe as both meet with the public at Red Bank Community Center about a school facilities plan late last month.

We wonder sometimes if Hamilton County Board of Education members talk just to hear themselves speak.

Nearly one month after a two-phase school facilities plan was released to the public, several board members are griping about it. If the carpers were that upset about what was released on Aug. 17, we wonder why they didn't immediately stage a community meeting — as one member did — to hear their constituents' views and — importantly — release their own better ideas for a solution.

School board members have long known the district has a problem with too many schools, schools with underutilized capacity and maintenance issues that will continue to proliferate as long as the number of schools remains where it is.

A 2019 facilities report gave them all the information they needed about the condition of schools, capacity, maintenance needs and a blueprint for the future. The blueprint wasn't perfect, changes were suggested and a revised plan was offered in early 2020 ... just before the COVID pandemic set in.

As COVID lapsed, the blueprint just gathered dust, and it appeared that the same inaction over facilities that had plagued the board over the past decade would continue. However, when Weston Wamp was elected Hamilton County mayor in 2022, he understood the need for a more efficient, more forward-looking school facilities plan and convened a working group toward that end.

Among its members were Superintendent Dr. Justin Robertson and school board chair Tiffanie Robinson.

For nearly a year, then, other school board members could have had community meetings, casually asked their constituents for thoughts they had on school facilities and sent those suggestions along with their own plans to the superintendent or Robinson. The worst the working group could do was look at them and reject them. But, on the other hand, the suggestions might have included an idea worth including in the final draft.

Instead, member Rhonda Thurman, who represents north Hamilton County, said she felt blindsided by the plan, and member Karitsa Jones, who represents Brainerd, said she felt disrespected.

Give us a break. This is a time for leadership, not childishness.

As facilities chair of the board, Jones — as Robertson pointed out to her at last week's meeting — is tasked with leading the discussion going forward. In other words — ours, not his — she should be promoting constructive public comment, guiding even-handed discussions, and forging better strategies than the working group did if that's what she and the public believe is necessary.

But staying put is not an option. Putting Band-Aids on a larger number of smaller or underutilized schools instead of consolidating some and building bigger facilities won't cut it anymore. Staying put is going backward, and this district can't afford that any longer.

Neither Jones nor Thurman said what they would do differently, how they would craft a solution.

We prefer, instead, the route taken by Ben Connor, who represents parts of Red Bank and Hixson. When the plan proposed to combine four schools into one, he and Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe hosted a town hall, where many of those present voiced displeasure at closing tiny neighborhood school Alpine Crest Elementary.

The school board and commission representatives told the crowd they understood their sentiments and were with them but also apprised them of the district's huge deferred maintenance issues and asked them to keep an open mind.

At a meeting with Times Free Press editors and reporters before announcing the school facilities issue last month, Robertson and Wamp acknowledged the public was likely to have thoughts about the plan and that it could change after the community weighed in.

With that in mind, the school board has tentatively set several dates for community members to share feedback on the facilities plan. That's as it should be.

We hope maturity will prevail at these meetings and with school board members in future facilities discussions. This isn't the mid-1960s when the city and county had their own school systems, when whites went to white schools and Blacks went to Black schools, and when baby boomers were filling all schools to the maximum.

And we're not sure we buy school board member Jill Black's statement at the board meeting that "we don't live in a community that is willing to pay for those very small schools." The small schools aren't practical anymore because of their continued maintenance needs and inefficient cost.

Discussion about the school facilities plan by the students who attend the schools, the parents who send them there, the administration, faculty and staff who work there, and the taxpayers who pay for them is healthy and should be welcome. Griping, whining and voicing faux outrage — especially from school board members who could have weighed in along the way — is not.

Our school facilities crisis is a serious problem that deserves a serious solution.