Roy Exum: Stay, Signal Mountain, Stay

Sunday, November 12, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

For the last couple of months I have been going up Signal Mountain several times a week to see a dear pal - B.B. Branton, a former neighbor, and a lifelong friend. I worked with him for several years at the former Chattanooga News-Free Press and as he convalesces during a bout with cancer at Alexian Brothers, I’ll take him his mail, share a story or two, and talk sports when I visit because he’s a delightful encyclopedia when it comes to sports trivia.

I visited him on Saturday and, as I drove along on top of the mountain yesterday, I counted at least three couples taking a walk, their dogs well-behaved, and it wasn’t lost on me that two of the couples were holding hands in the late-morning sun. There was a huge crowd down at Signal Point, from the looks of it, and everywhere you can see the Walden’s Ridge community is evermore a gem by modern-day standards.

Yet I worry about Signal Mountain because as hardy as the town most certainly is, it is also in a very delicate stage. Almost a year ago, a feasibility study was ordered to determine if the town’s schools should break away from the Hamilton County Department of Education. Yes, it is a feasible goal but, no, it is not quite as popular now as it was when it was pitched to Mayor Chris Howley at first.

There are enough good reasons to believe Signal Mountain’s two elementary schools, as well as the middle/high school, would be better without being dragged down by the HCDE. Things would be far easier to accomplish without the plodding bureaucracy, the dolts who come “to help,” and – at times – the questionable decisions from the Central Office.

Two years ago the county’s Department of Education was weighed on the scales and “found wanting” is about the best way to say what was uncovered was awful. It is still bad, in most people’s opinions, but I also believe it is no longer the one-way street to doomsville it was when the county-wide alarms first went off.

Supt. Bryan Johnson has already made a great impact in some areas. County Mayor Jim Coppinger has suddenly found a way to overcome years of derelict facilities because of very poor decisions in the past. When the HCDE can finally become pro-active, I believe an influx of fresh upper-management ability and creativity should give mountain parents enough of a reason to stay within the county system.

Back when I was in school, we weren’t taught “Tokyo math” or other crazy stuff that is foisted on our kids today. We were taught lots of things – not just how to take a once-a-year test (the biggest fraud in modern-day education). One big thing we learned back in my day was why our different states became united. We learned, through both wars as well as natural disasters, how important it is “to hold hands when crossing the street” and how teamwork is not just part of sports but of life itself, with our United States of America the best example in the world.

I have immersed myself into public education in the past two years. I have watched both the good and bad. If I think Education Commissioner Candace McQueen is totally inept, I know others must feel the same way. She’s wrecked the state test three straight years. She spent $500 million over five years in Memphis, creating a state-run Achievement School District, and -- hello! -- it was just reported that nine in 10 students still fall short. She’d do better coaching baseball.

We know that a full half of the high school seniors in Memphis will never go to school again and now she’s intent on spending millions in Chattanooga in the wackiest one-sided partnership ever devised on her worst sleepless night. You think Butch Jones is having a sad ending … Stephen King could write a horror novel on the state’s education failures.

The newspaper just got all huffy about a “lack of transparency” when a plan to build and revitalize our public schools was announced a couple of weeks ago, Lemme let you in on a secret: what really happened was the HCDE decided what it wanted to do, flashed it before the neck-bobbing school board members, and – presto -- it was presented to the public without so much as a squeak. The school board has about as much input into the Department of Education as Trump does to Putin.

When the HCDE plan was presented, I noticed Howard didn’t get the promised football field and track but within a week the Mayor “found” some money to grant Howard’s wish, another track at Central, and a couple of other laughable political favors to keep the peace pipe moving around the campfire. The school board had nothing to do with the last-minute athletic add-ons; the County Commission had everything to do with it.

Get this straight: As long as the County Commission holds the purse strings, the only thing the school board can do with authority is pose for a group picture. The commission approved a 1.9 percent increase for education in the FY2018 and the school board response -- zilch. The school board has no power whatsoever, other than to watch over the superintendent --- and that hasn’t worked out very well at all in a long time.

My point is such shenanigans are embarrassing to Signal Mountain. The mountain leaders – along with many others in the county -- detest “the art of the deal” but the bigger view is that Signal leaders must realize what will happen if they become “the red-headed stepchild” in the county. I can predict with certainty what will most definitely happen if Signal Mountain breaks away, no matter who takes Jim Fields’ seat at the bigger dais.

Signal Mountain needs to take its well-advised and expertly executed feasibility study to Supt. Johnson and urge him to give the study some “legs,” asking the HCDE to become a willing partner in excellence rather than a disjointed adversary. It is plainly obvious HCDE has overlooked Signal Mountain’s needs – along with other communities – but my point is that finally this is fixable.

You see, no matter a Signal Mountain parent’s stand on the split, the neighbors feel differently and unless a vote is unanimous it is always divisive. A split will wreck Signal, Walden and the unincorporated sections on every level and, when you see the overall excellence generated by the middle/high school – right now – you’ll find a split is no more than folly.

One last point. We know there are 41 Title One school in Hamilton County where lunch is subsidized. We have also determined that now, as never before, our entire county – every neighborhood – needs to band together for the common good of every student, everywhere. Signal Mountain has storied leaders in our total community.

We need Signal Mountain’s brains to worry about kids in Alton Park. We need Signal Mountain-led businesses to hire Tyner kids… to train and teach and befriend … for our common good. We don’t need an island; we need a family.

Stay, Signal Mountain, stay.

royexum@aol.com


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