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Two of the three candidates vying for the District 11 seat on the Hamilton County School Board showed up Thursday night for the third in a series of debates sponsored by Chattanooga 2.0, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News.
Democrat Jill Black of Lookout Mountain took on Independent Steve McKinney of Chattanooga. Republican Virginia Anne Manson of Lookout Mountain was originally scheduled to attend the debate but had a personal dispute. She couldn’t find another date. Manson submitted the following statement, which was read aloud by moderators.
“It is with deep sadness that I will not be able to be with you tonight,” Manson wrote. “A leader in our community recently lost a family member, and it is imperative to be with the family during this time. Although it has been attempted to find a new date to move this important event to allow my attendance, it was ultimately decided by those who planned for the forum to continue as planned…Our schools are the most important asset of our community.It is our responsibility to ensure that today, our next generation is educated to lead tomorrow.
(WATCH: Hamilton County School Board Debates 2022)
The District 11 candidate who wins the August 4 general election will represent the communities of Alton Park, East Lake, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Lookout Valley and St. Elmo. The district includes the following schools: Battle Academy for Teaching and Learning, Clifton Hills Elementary, Donaldson Calvin Elementary, East Lake Academy of Fine Arts, East Lake Elementary, East Side Elementary, Graduation Success Program, Howard Connect Academy, Howard High School, Lookout Mountain Elementary, Lookout Valley Elementary and Lookout Valley Middle/High.
Here’s what the candidates had to say about the topics covered in the debate:
THE PURPOSE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION
A resident of District 11 asked the candidates what they thought was the purpose of public education.
“I want students to be able to enjoy learning, and I think critical thinking will help pave that path for that,” McKinney said. “Some, I think, will be college-bound and some for future-ready type jobs. But I think it’s a big deal for them to develop a love of learning. And I think the public school system can definitely do that.”
Black said the role of public education is to provide children with skills they can use throughout their lives.
“We use all kinds of skills, emotional skills and knowledge that we learn through the basic curriculum that we are taught every day in the job market,” Black said. “So no matter what we choose to do, public education must prepare us for our lives.”
STUDENT MENTAL HEALTH
Following the pandemic, the mental health of students at school has been debated. The candidates shared how they would support Hamilton County schools’ efforts to address student mental health.
“I think having good mental health in schools is a very positive step that needs to be put in place,” McKinney said. “I think it’s important that we pay attention to mental health. And more social workers, I think, would be a help in the school setting. I think a school that has good mental health is a better school than one it is not.”
Black said the district needed to hire more staff to relieve pressure on teachers.
(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayoral candidates tackle labor and education in Signal Mountain debate)
“We absolutely need to invest more in our support staff who can help our students who are dealing with the effects of the past two years and things that existed before,” Black said.
DIVERSITY IN SCHOOLS
District 11 includes some of the wealthiest and poorest schools in Hamilton County, moderators said. Both candidates said they were well equipped to meet the unique needs of each school.
“The diversity of this community is exactly why I decided to run for the school board,” Black said.
“Having (a social work background) in addition to being someone who raises children who attend public schools, these two perspectives give me the skills I need to represent such a diverse district,” Black said. . “But we have to stay connected. It’s about living in community with each other, and we have to do a better job of that.”
McKinney also stressed the importance of relationships.
“I think we need to stay in touch with the schools, McKinney said. “We need to have relationships with the principals so they can talk to us. I think we have to be trusted, but we also have to listen to what they have to say and share it with those who are the stakeholders.”
In recent weeks, cases of COVID-19 have increased across the country. Should the numbers reach previous levels, McKinney said he would not recommend mandatory mask-wearing in schools and the decision should be left to parents.
Black said the state has already passed legislation that prevents local school districts from implementing mask mandates. The moderators asked him about his personal opinions on the matter.
“My family and I, personally, are listening to health experts and following the advice of our local health department,” Black said.
The Times Free Press previously reported that certain types of bullying, namely racial bullying, had increased in Hamilton County schools.
“I support a solution-based discipline policy that helps kids get to the root of the problem,” Black said. “We need to hire more support staff like social workers and interventionists. All behavior is communication, and we need to understand what these bullies are trying to communicate to us and the unmet need for them.”
McKinney suggested forming committees that can dissect the problem.
“The committee will be made up of teachers and parents who will try to get to the bottom of things about ways we can solve (this problem),” McKinney said.
Hamilton County Schools had a committee that recently reviewed the selection and objection processes to reading materials. Some parents have complained about the content of books dealing with themes related to LGBTQ issues, gender or race.
“I think parents need to have some level of involvement, but not to decide what the program might be,” McKinney said. “I think there’s a partnership that needs to be in place between parents and teachers, but I’m very much in favor as a teacher of letting teachers teach.”
“Certainly, as parents and caregivers of our students, we have a responsibility to monitor the media and the books our children choose to read,” Black said. “However, when it comes to schools in Hamilton County, we have 45,000 students in our school system. They come from extremely diverse backgrounds, cultures, religions and family structures. We’re not always going to put ourselves together. agree on what is appropriate or should be taught. So it all comes down to the fact that I trust teachers, librarians and literacy experts to be the professionals they are.”
The Hamilton County schools system faces nearly $1 billion in delayed building repairs, and the new board will have to make tough decisions going forward.
Both candidates said they would prioritize the needs of existing schools over the construction of new ones.
“That particular conversation, for me, needs to change in light of the recent gun violence to which our communities continue to be vulnerable,” Black said. “None of our existing schools that use portable buildings for their staff and students and have part of the school community outside of a secure school building do not have a safe and secure campus in terms of relates to the risk of armed violence.”
McKinney agreed, saying that to move the neighborhood forward, existing buildings must first be repaired.
“I think schools really need attention for facility safety and just getting schools to a level where they can be safer but also a little bit more current (is) a priority for me,” McKinney said. .