By Joe Bailey
Hamilton County’s public school teachers came together on Sunday to question county commissioners and board of education members on what the event organizer referred to as a crisis in Chattanooga’s education system.
The gathering, dubbed the Teacher Town Hall meeting, was moderated by WRCB anchor David Carroll, and saw a panel of various elected officials answer pre-chosen questions concerning the way Hamilton County has been funding its public schools. The meeting was held at Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center.
Kendra Young, eighth grade science teacher and organizer of the meeting, said that the county has voted down at least four proposals that would increase pay for teachers. With most of these proposals coming in the form of property taxes, they would have only cost taxpayers cents if implemented. Young said that, every time, these proposals have been contested by the same five commissioners, none of whom appeared at the meeting.
“The heartbeat of the schools are the teachers,” Young said. “They are the number one in-school factor that influences a child’s education. If we don’t have the best teachers in the classroom, everything else is a moot discussion. We’ve lost 32 teachers already just this school year, and we’ve not even made it to Christmas yet. We are bleeding teachers to other areas that offer better pay, better working conditions or better benefits. Most of the time it’s all three.”
The meeting was meant to galvanize the commissioners and further pressure them to recognize the need for better salaries. Young said this problem has been systemic for generations, and that getting everyone on the same page is the best first step to changing what is an unsustainable system with insufficient funding.
Next, the teachers of Hamilton County are demanding that these officials truly try to implement actionable solutions as opposed to falling back on the usual tepid excuses.
“The third thing we’re asking today is, ‘What are your action steps?’” Young said. “‘What are you willing to do and what’s your deadline for doing it?’”
She said she hopes deadlines will really make them commit to these changes. And although the hour and a half long discussion didn’t end up being long enough to close in on solutions, future meetings might provide that opportunity.
The teachers had an unaffiliated data analyst crunch the numbers, and found that, since the start of the semester, at least 2.5 million dollars worth of extra uncompensated time and money are owed to public school educators in Hamilton County. With so many teachers working extra hours and paying out-of-pocket for school supplies without logging them, Young said the true amount of unreimbursed dollars could be as much as double the estimate.
“This tells us that we teachers are carrying the school district on our back,” Young said. “And we are saying as loud and as clear as we can that we cannot continue to do this. Either the communities have to figure out a solution to this, or we’re going to have to start cutting programs, because teachers are about to stop working for free.”
Eighth grade language arts teacher Carrie Bishop said that, ultimately, she is participating for the sake of her students. For many public schools, the loss of great teachers can leave holes that are hard to fill. Bishop said that the market for teachers is a competitive one, and that teachers will continue to leave Hamilton County schools when pay is better elsewhere.
Bishop said that what sparked her decision to participate was an email conversation she had with District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd during which the commissioner was dismissive of her concerns. She said that, because they are in the classroom every day, teachers have a much better understanding of the needs of schools than do the people funding them.
Bishop said she thinks that many of the parents who send their children to expensive private schools don’t think they should have to pay for public schools.
“Nobody wants to say it, but the truth is that nobody wants to invest in other people’s kids,” Bishop said, choking up. “I’ve spent my life doing that. That’s my life’s work, is investing in other people’s kids. So I think we need to have a conversation because I think that’s the message the community is sending and that’s what I got when I read those emails.”
Bishop said that raising pay for teachers has been shown to reduce turnover and overall increase the quality of education. She said that if more people elected to send their children to public school, it would improve them for everyone, and that it is often the schools that need the most support which go underfunded.
Near the end of the panel discussion, which consisted primarily of the different commissioners and board of education members explaining their positions and perspectives, District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe pointed out that many more meetings would be necessary if they were to make the kind of progress everyone was talking about; if they were to get the attention of the elected officials who hadn’t attended.
“So maybe we do this again, and then we do it again, and then maybe we do it again. How often do you need to do this? You can only not come to a meeting so many times.”
As for an action plan, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the timeline can only be announced after more discussion, and that no promises can be made yet about how much of the budget can be reallocated. What he said he could promise is that the commission will do their best to increase funding for public schools.
Maybe this wasn’t the answer most of the teachers in the room were hoping for, but the prospect of more meetings, and the heartfelt enthusiasm of the officials seemed to inspire confidence that future meetings would serve as the seedbeds for improvements to Hamilton County’s public schools and better compensation for educators.