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Rhonda Thurman speaks during a Hamilton County School Board meeting.
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Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Hamilton County School Board member Joe Smith speaks during an informal discussion in June 2017.

We woke up Friday morning and read a news release about race, integration and busing from two school board members (and later a Times Free Press story) that made us wonder if we'd fallen through a time warp to return to a 1960 version of Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

The news release began with this sentence: "Two members of the Hamilton County School Board said today they reject the idea that county schools need to 'racially and economically integrate,' the premise of a recently released policy platform from UnifiEd, a 4-year old organization created to support public education."

The two school board members, Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith, then went on to talk about our "conservative" county and "liberals from out of town."

What's this all really about? Twelve schools. A dozen schools (out of Hamilton County's 79 schools) where 90 percent of the students are black or Hispanic and — most importantly — come from communities of concentrated poverty.

In those dozen schools, only 3 percent of the children enter kindergarten ready to learn and only about 3 percent graduate high school with the skills to get a job.

If you want to think this is a black and white issue, fine. But that's very small thinking. That's thinking that poor people and poor schools don't affect richer ones or the city and county as a whole. Even putting morality aside and looking at it only with an economic eye, as a community we can spend a little political capital and money now to improve this situation or we can spend a lot of the same in 18 years on jails and assistance programs. Black and white? No. Try green.

Just ask Volkswagen, which had to create its own training program. Just ask the Chamber of Commerce, which a couple of years ago had to create its own schools improvement push — Chattanooga 2.0 — to save our industrial recruitment efforts when employers looked at our work force and questioned why in world they would want to stay here.

Just read the first page of the Hamilton County Schools Budget Working Group Findings & Recommendations, a goals report commissioned by the county mayor from a group of Chattanooga business executives and completed in May of 2017:

Item No. 1 in the first paragraph of the first page of the Executive Summary reads, in part: "To improve the performance of our public schools, HCDE must address a series of fundamental challenges: [A] growing number of students living in poverty and a growing concentration of poverty in individual schools."

But two school board members appear to see only two things — buses and children of color sitting amid white faces.

"[UnifiEd] calls for using busing to promote integration," Thurman said in a statement, referring to calls for a transportation policy in the [UnifiEd's Action Plan for Educational Excellence] APEX report [released last month] to support integration. "UnifiEd may think that busing is a new and innovative idea, but the truth is that busing was tried in the '60's, '70's and '80's. It did not work then and it will not work now, I don't care what the research says."

In the statement, Smith said: "I read every word of the report after we received it in April, and I have talked with the education leaders in my district about this policy. I can't support what it says. I am not sure how [UnifiEd] can say this represents Hamilton County because I know it doesn't represent what the people of District 3 believe. Hamilton County is a conservative place, and [UnifiEd] has shown itself to be way far to the left on what they believe."

More from Thurman: "This is my county, I don't need liberals from out of town coming here telling me what's best for people in Hamilton County and ordering me to tell the County Commission to take more money from taxpayers."

Under normal circumstances, these are two very good people, whom we've come to respect. Thurman is a very vocal but often excellent questioner on the school board. Smith is a longtime local youth leader. But in this case they are having a knee-jerk reaction that we believe has little to do with racism and much to do with political push-back.

The "liberals" they decry are the community organizers of UnifiEd, who work to raise community interest in schools, develop school board and county commission candidate campaign questionnaires and forums — and, perhaps more to the point, then make endorsements.

Everybody here needs to just step back and take a breath. "Busing" is a shadow-hatchet here. There are lots of ways to decentralize poverty in schools — like open enrollment and real magnet schools. The planned new Future-Ready Institutes are a perfect example. And, by the way, the institutes will also require new bus routes.

What is important are our children and their education, our county and its future.

What is not important is the political backbiting prompted by the tribal influences of our time that made these two normally reasonable people leap off the cliff.

We're either going to rise above "liberal" or "conservative" and help all of our children, or we're not.

But all school board members or county commissioners who think doing nothing is the answer need to find other work.

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