Hamilton Co school board candidates react to 2 members rejecting integration proposal

The two candidates, D'Andre Anderson in the middle and Steve Highlander on the right, answered questions regarding topics within Hamilton County Schools. Dr. Highlander often referenced his 40+ years of experience as an educator and Anderson asserting it's time for change, saying his youth can bring new, innovative ideas to the table. (image WTVC)

Hamilton County Department of Education chair Steve Highlander sat next to his ballot parallel in Ooltewah High School's cafeteria Monday night. He and D'Andre Anderson are running for the District 9 seat this fall. They joined UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0 as part of the organizations' series of school board debates.

Monday night's debate was the first since school board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith publicly rejected an idea of integrating socioeconomic and racially segregated schools across Hamilton County. The call for diversity came from UnifiEd's "Action Plan for Educational eXcellence" or "APEX" project.

It was quickly addressed by UnifiEd's executive director Natalie Cook:

"I want to take a moment right now to address the rather vibrant public conversation that's been ignited over the last few of days around the issues of segregated schools with high concentration of poverty in Hamilton County. There have been a lot of opinions shared opposing the concept of forced busing as a solution to desegregate schools and we agree with them. UnifiEd shares that position, and does not advocate for forced busing. Data, research and most importantly this community's lived history and experience, all prove that it doesn't work. If you read the APEX project report, which is available conveniently at apexprojectreport.com, you'll find there's no reference to forced busing. What you will find are examples of policy solutions that have been successful in other towns to break up concentrated poverty in their schools. We want to be clear that UnifiEd's role is not to prescribe solutions. Our role is to facilitate community involvement and driving positive change for our schools and students."

Cook goes onto to say that each debate UnifiEd is hosting, has a list of five questions that will be asked of each candidate; one of those questions will be regarding the candidate's stance on desegregating schools.

"That question is being asked on the premise that ending segregation was a priority identified by the community through the input process of the APEX project," said Cook. She told News Channel 9 the organization felt it was necessary to create a correction to it's intentions of the APEX project, especially when it comes to the idea of forced busing.

"It seems like no one is in favor of that, including UnifiEd," she said. "Forced busing is not a policy that UnifiEd has ever advocated for and do not plan to advocate for."

The diversity question was number two out of five in Monday night's debate.

"I fully support diversity," said Anderson. "If we thought about that a little deeper and remodeled our Hamilton county system, maybe things would change and we would see different outcomes in poverty rates and test scores.

Anderson then addressed the comments by board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith.

"Don't go and say that is okay and force everyone to think segregated schools are okay," he added. "Because it's not It's 2018."

Dr. Highlander responded afterward, saying he needed to correct what he called "misconceptions."

"Anyone that thinks Mr. [Joe] Smith is racially involved is foolish," Highlander said. "Both he and Ms. [Rhonda] Thurman, the way I read it, I don't think they're trying to be racist. They're trying to be economically practical, so whether you agree or not with that, there's just some misconception I wanted to straighten up."

Dr. Highlander went on to say he does believe in diversity, but also believes in the other school board members having their own opinions. Anderson responded.

"If you were someone who were to agree with this, which you seem to do, I just would've liked, as a student growing up in this county, for you to have represented the board a little better by publicly saying what you said tonight," he said. "I feel like publicly, it would've been nice to see both sides of the party and not the just the one that was publicized."

The two candidates went on to answer the rest of the questions; Dr. Highlander often referencing his 40+ years of experience as an educator in the county and Anderson asserting it's time for change, saying his youth can bring new, innovative ideas to the table.

UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0 will host two more debates; One for the district three seat on Monday May 21st at Hixson High School and another for the district five seat on Tuesday May 29th at Dalewood Middle School. Both debates will start at 6p.m. and expected to last until 8p.m.

Voters can register to vote for school board by July 3rd. The election will be on August 2nd.

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