School safety and infrastructure were among the top concerns of the two candidates vying for the District 8 seat on the Hamilton County School Board during Tuesday night’s debate.
Republican and former Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn, now of East Ridge, took on Democrat Katie Perkins of Chattanooga in the first of a series of debates sponsored by Chattanooga 2.0, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News.
The District 8 candidate who wins the August general election will represent the Brainerd Hills, Concord and East Ridge area, which includes East Ridge elementary, middle and high schools, as well as Spring Creek Elementary.
Other issues addressed in the debate included educational equity, bullying and literacy rates. Here’s what the candidates had to say.
Following the events in Uvalde, Texas, and the recent shootings in Chattanooga, the best way to keep students safe at school has been debated. Recently, Hamilton County Schools announced an investment of $950,000 to hire and place security guards in every school. The County Commission also approved additional funding of $1 million to support the effort.
Grohn said the district has invested in making schools safer outdoors, but wondered what the district is doing to make schools safer indoors.
“Do we have an appropriate learning environment for our students? Grohn asked. “We have a huge discipline problem within our schools.”
Perkins said the focus on infrastructure will help keep schools safe.
“Right now we have the infrastructure that’s breaking down,” Perkins said. “We have bullying, we have COVID and we have shootings. So all of those things encompass school safety.”
The Times Free Press previously reported that certain types of bullying, namely racial bullying, had increased in Hamilton County schools.
“We need to go back to the beginning and start at the root and teach kindness and make sure our youngest learners feel safe in school and have their needs met intellectually, emotionally and physically,” Perkins said. She added that the district should develop a discipline plan and communicate that plan to all levels of staff.
Grohn said the district already had a plan, but it was not being followed.
“The problem our school district is currently experiencing is that administrators are not following our district’s code of conduct,” Grohn said.
He said it was not enforced because of restorative justice, which focuses more on rehabilitation and reconciliation than punishment.
“The school district is trying to solve this problem with social-emotional learning. But if you have an unsafe environment, social-emotional learning can’t work,” he said.
Retain quality teachers
Across the country, teachers are leaving the profession in droves, commonly known as the “teacher exodus,” and districts across the country are looking for ways to retain and attract new teachers. One such tactic is to raise wages. Hamilton County teachers will see a 3% increase this year, but both candidates said pay isn’t the only answer.
“Teachers are overwhelmed,” Perkins said. “They’re overdoing it. They’re the nurse, they’re the psychologist, and in some cases they’re the parent. So retaining teachers isn’t necessarily about money, because there’s so much other outside factors right now with societal criticism and judgment from social media that we haven’t had in the past.”
Grohn agreed with Perkins that teachers are doing too much, but added that schools are not the place for social justice.
“The biggest problems among teachers are lack of administrative support, lack of respect and discipline in schools,” Grohn said. “And just as my opponent mentioned, the schools have been loaded with things that the mission of the schools has never been. The mission of the schools is education. It’s not about trying to be an instrument of social change or of solving all the problems of modern society which can only be solved by individual families in their individual homes.”
Hamilton County schools face nearly $1 billion in delayed building repairs, and the new board will have to make tough decisions going forward.
“I think the district needs to do more in terms of the capital budget, and even the general budget and put more money into school maintenance,” Grohn said.
Perkins said a good place to start solving the problem is clean air and water.
“Recently I received an email about my son’s school water containing too much lead, which no parent should ever receive an email like this,” said said Perkins. “You cannot send our children to school with roofs collapsing over their heads and without clean water to drink or clean air to breathe. So how do we solve these problems? We solve water problems by filtering the water.”
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.
Grohn said Hamilton County school librarians are not equipped to make decisions about reading materials.
“I think school librarians are on a whole different level than public librarians,” Grohn said. “This is (K-8), this environment is not a place to talk about gender and sex.”
Grohn said he had a copy of “It’s Perfectly Normal,” a children’s book about sexual health written by Robie Harris that teaches kids about puberty through different definitions of sex.
“It’s pornographic,” Grohn said.
Perkins said she apologized to school librarians who heard Grohn’s comment.
“I think we have to trust our librarians and our teachers who learn how to put the proper materials on the shelves,” Perkins said.
Falling enrollment rates
The college attendance rate for seniors in Hamilton County schools has fallen more than 11% over the past five years, following statewide trends, with Tennessee’s college attendance rate dropping from 63 .8% in 2017 to 52.8% last year. Students of color have lower college attendance rates than white students: Latinos had the fewest college enrollments, with 35% going to college in 2021. For black students, 44% attended college. registered. White high school graduates had the highest enrollment rate, at 57.6%.
Grohn said he thinks college isn’t for everyone. In a questionnaire posted by Chattanooga 2.0 ahead of the debates, Grohn said the goal of sending all students of color to college was impractical.
“I don’t believe college is the place for all students,” Grohn said. “Having a goal for all (students of color), or for any student of color, to go to college is unproductive and unrealistic. The nation has already achieved these types of goals. The number of women of all colors attending college and graduating has been higher than men for years.”
He later wrote that he believed all students in Hamilton County were students of color.
“Separating people into specific groups based solely on race has been a mistake throughout our national history,” Grohn said in his responses. “Realizing that individuals from socioeconomic groups have their own unique issues is helpful, but we shouldn’t base educational goals on a person’s skin color.”
Debate moderators asked him about the comments and he replied that Future-Ready Institutes of Hamilton County can help increase graduation rates for all students.
Perkins said the school board has a duty to ensure that all students have equal opportunities.
“The school board must ensure that all opportunities are available to all students, regardless of background, socioeconomic background, or whatever else,” Perkins said. “So, yes, not all students want to go to college. So there are these future-ready programs. But in terms of the opportunity gap, we have to recognize that it exists.”
Racial disparities in literacy rates
Overall, only 36.2% of third-grade students in Hamilton County are proficient in reading, and other disparities exist between white students and students of color. Black students have the lowest literacy proficiency rates in Hamilton County, 17.2%. They are followed by Latino students with a proficiency rate of 21.2%.
Both candidates agreed that increasing literacy is a priority.
“When we talk about improving literacy, we have the preschool programs available in Hamilton County schools that are very important,” Perkins said. “We have to make sure that children, students learn to understand as well as decode words.”
Grohn said the solution will not be found in addressing racial disparities but in improving the program.
“I think our program needs a total overhaul,” Grohn said. “It doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. And we have to fix that. And fairness is not an issue in this case.”
Questions from applicants
Candidates were given the opportunity to ask each other a question.
Grohn asked Perkins who she was and where she stood on important issues.
“The vast majority, I would say, of our constituents in District 8 don’t know where you stand on the important issues. Who are you?” Grohn asked.
“I don’t think it’s very fair to generalize what everyone in District 8 thinks of me,” Perkins said. “My name is Katie Perkins and I am a mother. And my intention for running for the school board is to make schools better and safer for my children and for all children in this community.”
Perkins asked Grohn if he supports the district’s educational equality policy which states that all students should have the opportunity to receive an excellent public education, regardless of the community in which they live.
Grohn said politics is important but the problem is multifaceted.
“Do I believe our school district needs an equity office? No, I don’t,” Grohn said. “I think this is an unreasonable growth of central office administration.”
He added that the number of staff in the Equity Office should be reduced.