School & District Management

Us Versus Them? Chattanooga Prepares for Merger

By Beth Reinhard — June 18, 1997 8 min read
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In this former Confederate city once known as a vital railroad center linking North and South, the public schools are forging a similar union with their suburban neighbors.

The city’s students are predominantly black and from poor families. In surrounding Hamilton County, most are white and middle-class.

On July 1, they will all belong to a single district with one budget, one teachers’ union, and one school board. And uneasy parents and teachers here are asking: Will the new district nurture the city’s disadvantaged children? Will the merger drag down the county’s high test scores? Will there be busing?

“Folks are scared to death,” said Fred D. Carr, the assistant superintendent of business and finance for the new district. “We’re working really hard to eliminate the us-versus-them atmosphere.”

It’s a challenge that faces regional school districts nationwide as well as state governments like those of New Jersey and Ohio that are grappling with racial and economic disparities between districts.

A hybrid administration of city and county educators, handpicked by new Superintendent Jesse B. Register, views the merger here as a rare chance to bring the best qualities of each district to the new 43,000-student system. Despite a limited budget, the school leaders are trying to blend two sets of employee benefits, school fees, graduation requirements, and other policies into a single high-achieving unit.

And they must accomplish this daunting task while tiptoeing between the competing interests of suburban and inner-city parents, civil rights groups, several employee unions, state education officials, and the County Commission.

“We could fall flat on our face, but it’s a chance to make something better,” said Peggy Loftin, the president of the merged teachers’ union.

The most sensitive issue--pupil assignment--won’t be debated until the fall while officials weigh attendance boundaries and other desegregation tools. Year-round elementary and middle schools are also in the works.

“We’ve tried very hard not to make unnecessary changes,” said Debbie Colburn, the no-nonsense school board chairwoman for the new Hamilton County district. “We want people to buy into this merger and see that it doesn’t have to be devastating.”

Fairness Issues

The new district, bisected by the Tennessee River, will have 81 schools. To Mr. Register, a kindly but self-assured North Carolina native, success depends on spreading the estimated $225 million budget as fairly as possible across all of them.

City teachers will earn an average of $3,000 more in 1997-98 to bring them up to par with their county peers. Some secretaries, custodians, and bus drivers in either district will take pay cuts to equalize wages.

The new district has asked the Hamilton County Commission, which must approve the budget, for $1 million to employ equal numbers of music teachers, physical education teachers, and library aides in the city and county. City middle and high school students, who use 1990 social studies books, are slated to get the same 1996 editions used by county students.

“Textbooks are the perfect example of an equity issue,” said Mr. Register, who helped plan two district mergers in his home state. “Not having comparable materials are red flag issues to a community.”

The local branch of the NAACP fought for the new books and is also lobbying for more black teachers. Currently, the county meets a 1993 state rule requiring the representation of black teachers to reflect the enrollment of black students. But the merger will change the proportions to 31 percent black students and 16 percent black teachers.

That means that Malcolm J. Walker, the new district’s director of minority affairs, must eventually find 393 black teachers, even though the pool of candidates is small. “We need to expose children to positive role models from different backgrounds,” he said.

But the district’s greatest challenge will be to integrate schools in a racially divided region. Even within the city, most whites live and work in the northern section, which has bloomed with glass-and-steel tourist attractions, artsy shops, and brick-lined courtyards. But the downtown renaissance has not reached the mostly black neighborhoods to the south.

Desegregation Challenges

Mr. Register, who opposes busing as a desegregation tool, plans to appoint a task force this year to consider how to diversify classrooms while sending most children to schools close to home.

Chattanooga’s experience with desegregation began in 1960, when James Mapp, who was then the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sued the district, incensed that his children were bused to an all-black school. Court-ordered busing and race-based reassignment of teachers lasted until 1986.

But a middle-class exodus in the 1970s eroded the tax base and public support for the schools. Since then, the city’s black children have tended to lag behind their white suburban peers.

“I cannot tolerate a system that allows students to fail and to graduate to hanging out on Martin Luther King Boulevard,” said Eddie F. Holmes, the current NAACP president. “But there’s no reason to fear another lawsuit if they’re doing the right thing. “

Different Cultures

No matter how well the new district balances its resources, a city-county culture clash is as inevitable as the region’s Civil War landmarks.

Marcy Anderson teaches at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, a K-12 school in the city that is based on the Paideia model, which forgoes separating pupils by ability and emphasizes Socratic teaching methods and a strong classical education.

She likes to wear jeans and sit on the floor with her students and balks at the idea of a dress code or a focus on standardized tests. “I don’t want to be dumped into a pile with everybody else,” she said.

The city has several unconventional schools--three Paideia, four Montessori, and one with an ecology-based curriculum--while the county’s only nontraditional schools are vocational-technical.

African-American parents are particularly worried about a policy in the new district under which students who bring weapons to school are expelled. Tennessee now requires “zero tolerance” policies, but some black residents suspect the district started the policy to target their children.

Mary Eason, a retiree who adopted two infants a few years ago, still resents the closings of 18 mostly black city schools in 1989 and the building of several new county schools since then. She asked, “Why don’t they just give us what we need at our schools and leave us alone?”

A concern among county parents is that city pupils will drag down academic standards and test scores. The county keeps students back who fail two subjects; the city’s policy is more lenient. On the 1996 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, county pupils scored above average, while city pupils scored below.

“The county’s scores have been good, but there’s been some complacency,” Mr. Register said. “We can’t be satisfied with the status quo, nor can poorer city schools be defensive if they don’t do as well.”

A $700,000 grant from the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga is helping create academic standards for grades 4, 8, and 12, and train teachers in their use. In 1995, the group wrote a framework for the new district that recommends high standards and neighborhood-based schools. (“Board Ponders District Merger in Chattanooga,” March 20, 1996.)

Diverse School Board

The region has already survived explosive educational change, aptly symbolized by the new district’s office on the site of a former TNT manufacturing plant. In 1941, Chattanooga voters approved a charter that created their own school system, seeking to separate from a county perceived as too rural and unsophisticated to properly educate city children.

But middle-class flight and a successful lawsuit brought by rural schools seeking a bigger share of state aid drained the city’s resources. Many city residents resented paying twice for schools in their city and county taxes, particularly since the city system was perceived as inferior.

The anti-tax momentum culminated on Nov. 8, 1994, when city residents voted to dissolve their district. A second vote in 1996, after a petition drive by an outspoken black minister opposed to the merger, drew even more votes in favor of abolishing the system.

Because counties are responsible for public education in Tennessee, Hamilton County had no choice but to accept the city’s students. At the same time, state law forced the county to switch from a school board appointed by the County Commission to an elected one.

Last year’s election resulted in the most diverse board ever, with four white men, three white women, and two black men. They chose Mr. Register, a 50-year-old Chattanooga outsider who was then superintendent of the 15,500-student Statesville-Iredell schools in North Carolina, to lead the new district.

Dousing Rumors

Mr. Register, who has degrees from the University of North Carolina and Duke University, recently attended his 82nd faculty meeting since arriving in October.

“He’s worked like a Trojan since he’s been here,” said Gail Phillips, the president of the Hamilton County Council of PTAs.

At a recent meeting with school employee representatives, Mr. Register patiently answered question after question, many of them based on rumor: “Is it true we won’t have day custodians?” (No.) “I heard we won’t get paid twice a month.” (Not true.) “Will I lose clerical aides?” (Possibly.)

He has already made some tough decisions. He reorganized the chain of command and is reducing the staff in the two central offices by 25 percent. Most cuts will come from 150 employees taking early-retirement bonuses, but 29 maintenance workers and two administrators were dismissed and another 40 workers will be laid off or reassigned.

The superintendent has also banned teacher transfers after July 1 to stymie a possible city-to-county exodus during the fragile first school year.

“People are tired of turf battles,” Mr. Register said. “We need to quit looking at the past and get on with the business of school improvement.”

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