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Board Ponders District Merger in Chattanooga

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The school board in Hamilton County, Tenn., is sure of one thing: Come 1997, its schools will consolidate with the Chattanooga city schools. But just how that will happen is far from clear.

Board members are now mulling over an ambitious plan to create a whole new school system instead of simply combining the two old ones. Whether the board will adopt the plan as a blueprint for change, pick and choose among its recommendations, or pass up the chance to rethink the system remains up in the air.

Chattanooga-area business and higher education leaders have rallied behind the blueprint, signing a compact promising to give priority for jobs and college admissions if students can demonstrate increased knowledge and skills.

Educators and some board members in Hamilton County are far less enthusiastic, however. County principals have denounced the plan, which calls for site-based management, as an infringement of their authority.

And some taxpayers and board members are balking at its $22 million price tag, a 7 percent increase over what county taxpayers now spend for education. The two systems have a combined budget of about $200 million and educate 47,000 students.

"What people generally say is, 'We like the plan, but,"' said Edna Varner, the principal of Chattanooga Phoenix Middle School and a member of the 36-member committee that wrote the framework. "I think it's going to be pending for a long time."

The ferment over education in the region started in November 1994. Chattanooga residents voted to give up their school system, which was losing students and draining tax money, and become part of the surrounding Hamilton County district in 1997. Similar mergers have taken place in Knoxville and Nashville.

But rather than just merge the two systems, members of the board of education asked the Chattanooga-based Public Education Foundation to help lay the groundwork for a new system. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

Change in the Making

A committee of educators, business people, civic leaders, and parents from both systems spent eight months drafting the document. The 53-page framework contains familiar elements of "systemic" reform, including an emphasis on early-childhood education, high standards and challenging assessments, accountability, and school-based management. It also calls for all students to meet the tougher standards.

In January, the committee formally presented its plan to the nine-member Hamilton County school board. Last month, board members met weekly with the subcommittees that wrote the document to resolve questions.

"The time has come for the school board to start making decisions," said Debbie Colburn, a board member who favors adopting parts of the framework.

Ms. Colburn said some residents have questioned the assertion that all children can meet the standards. "Maybe it should be reworded to give all children the equal opportunity to achieve this education," she said.

Where the Buck Stops

But the biggest sticking points are the recommendations for governance and accountability. The framework calls for each school to have a decisionmaking council that would determine the makeup of school staffs and their assignments; decide how to use extra funds provided for low-income students; and make decisions about spending money allocated for books, supplies, equipment, food service, and maintenance.

The councils would be made up of a majority of teachers and school staff members, but parents and community members would serve as well. Principals would be able to overrule the council decisions "when absolutely necessary." Councils would have a hand in hiring teachers by making recommendations to principals, and in hiring principals by advising the superintendent.

Currently, Hamilton County schools use a form of shared decisionmaking. Schools have two councils, one made up of educators who make decisions about curriculum and instruction and one of parents who advise on dress codes and other school policies.

The document makes clear that principals would have final responsibility for the operation of their schools and says that schools will be held accountable for meeting high standards.

Steven H. Prigohzy, the president of the Public Education Foundation, remarked that "everyone wants authority. They're delighted to have it. It's accountability that seems to be at issue."

Increasing the role of parents in school governance would be a major change for many schools, Ms. Varner noted. "Everyone I talked to does not want parents in a governing role," she said.

Fred R. Skillern, a 20-year board veteran, said he would not vote for a plan that allowed a council to assign teachers but held principals responsible for student achievement.

"Some of these ideas are wonderful and work real good in private education," he said. "But when it's public education, we have to take everybody. We can't test anyone before they enter our schools."

Bill Bowman, the president of the Hamilton County Education Association, expressed doubt that the board will put any of the recommendations into action.

"My personal opinion is the board didn't realize what would happen," Mr. Bowman said. "I think the Public Education Foundation went beyond what was expected of it, although they did it for very commendable reasons."

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