When it comes to education in Hamilton County, there’s good news and there’s bad news, according to County Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley. The bad news is this: Hamilton County’s students are scoring low on the ACT; its third and fourth graders are reading below their grade level; and its workforce needs to be better prepared for the jobs that are coming. The good news is this: if everyone works together, Hamilton County can turn these things around.
Smedley spoke about education and other topics of concern during the Women’s Council of Realtors’ September business resources luncheon on Sept. 7 at the Choo Choo Hotel. A Realtor herself, Smedley began by thanking her colleagues for their support during her election run. “If it hadn’t been for the Realtor community, I wouldn’t have been elected. You are the ones who raised money, came to my events, and supported me,” she said. “I hope I’m making you proud. I’m trying to do the right thing in every decision I make.”
Smedley said Hamilton County is spending more on education than any other item. Out of a budget of $679 million, the county is paying out $417 million on schooling its students. While this number shows a strong commitment to education in Hamilton County, Smedley said, a local study revealed weaknesses in the system.
Conducted by Chattanooga 2.0, a community-wide initiative to improve academic excellence in Hamilton County, the study revealed that over the next five years, 15,000 new jobs will be coming to Hamilton County. While Smedley said this is good news, Hamilton County must be prepared to meet the corresponding demands on its labor force. To address this issue, the county has partnered with Chattanooga State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to “tweak their curriculums so we can better train our workforce,” Smedley said.
The Chattanooga 2.0 study also brought to light performance issues at local schools, including low ACT scores and levels of college preparedness. According to Smedley, even the best local schools are underperforming. She used East Hamilton Middle High School as an example of a well-regarded school with what she said is a low average ACT score - 21. (According to The Princeton Review, the national average is between 20 and 21.)
Just as disconcerting is the low level of college preparedness of local students, Smedley said, with only 21 percent of the students at East Hamilton scoring high enough to be considered ready for college. Only 19 percent of the students at Ooltewah High School showed an acceptable level of preparedness, while 43 percent of Signal Mountain Middle High School’s students were considered ready for higher education.
“We’re finding that 60 percent of our students who go to college have to take remedial courses,” Smedley said.
Finally, the Chattanooga 2.0 study showed that local students continue to struggle with literacy, Smedley said, with 64 percent of local third and fourth graders not reading at their grade level.
“This is a crucial time for education in Hamilton County,” Smedley, who is a member of the Chattanooga 2.0 steering committee, said. “We have to turn things around.”
Money is not the answer, Smedley said. Despite spending $450 more per student above the state average, Hamilton County students are in the bottom third in Tennessee. A good first step, Smedley said, would be hiring the right leader.
“The Board of Education needs to hire someone who will be committed to making improvements, and who understands things can’t be fixed overnight,” Smedley said. “We need someone with a good track record, and who knows the importance of hiring and retaining the best teachers.”
Smedley said fostering stronger relationships between school board members, state representatives, and city council members is also key. To this end, Smedley is sitting down with the state representatives from this area and local high school principals twice a year and encouraging them to talk. The most recent meeting took place after the start of the current school year.
“It was eye-opening.” Smedley said. “The state representatives had no idea what the principals were dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and they returned to Nashville determined to try to make positive changes. The only way that will happen is if everyone works together.”
Smedley covered a number of additional topics during her talk, including:
“We continue to struggle with public safety. Just about every day, we wake up to news about another shooting, and it’s becoming more and more challenging to keep our neighborhoods and schools safe. Right now, it’s costing us $80,000 a day to maintain the jail. That’s astronomical. And moving forward, we’re going to have to consider building a new jail. We’ve hired a public financial management firm to do a study about privatizing it. We should have the results soon.”
“Those of you who work with developers or builders have probably heard a lot of complaints about the WWTA (Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority). Moving forward, the county will be revamping the WWTA. We’re working with a state delegation, and must present a plan to it by next July. There will be major improvements.”
“Most of the meetings I’m having are with residents concerned about seeing another zoning notice go up. Right now, there are five zoning notices up on the stretch of Ooltewah Ringgold Road from West Brainerd Road to Apison Pike. The community wants to know we’re not blindly approving everything, but that we’re looking at the traffic on our roads and the crowded schools. They want to know we’re planning strategically. I assure you, we are.”
“We’re experiencing tremendous growth, and the county is focused on managing that growth properly. One of the things we’re doing is developing a comprehensive growth plan for Ooltewah, Soddy Daisy, and the East Brainerd-Apison area, because those are the places where growth is coming. Growth will help us to avoid a tax increase and keep our property taxes low.”
As Smedley has served as the county commissioner of District 7, which is comprised of East Brainerd, Apison, Collegedale, and part of Ooltewah, she says she has been mindful of how the decisions of Hamilton County’s government affect the local real estate market. During the most recent budgeting period, she noted that funding every request from the government’s various departments would have required a 57 cent property tax increase. “People are moving to this area because of the low property taxes, so that would have had a negative impact on our industry,” Smedley said.
As chair of the education committee, Smedley has also kept her fingers on the pulse of local schools. She says it’s important for all Realtors to become involved in education. “When we’re working with clients, one of the first things they ask about is the local schools,” she said. “Realtors need to stay engaged in the political process and deciding who will govern the county.”
Smedley closed by inviting all Realtors to a public meeting to take place at Christ United Methodist Church in East Brainerd at 6 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 19. County Mayor Jim Coppinger, the Regional Planning Agency, TDOT, and more will be on hand to talk about growth in the county. “It’s important to educate the public. Letting people know what’s going on allays their fears,” Smedley said. “People just want to know what the plan is.”
WCR Coming up
The Chattanooga Chapter of the Women’s Council of Realtors will host its second annual Bras for a Cause fundraiser Friday, Oct. 7 from 6-9 p.m. at the Marriott Chattanooga Downtown.
The event will feature a bra fashion show with male models, who will prance around the room gathering donations for breast cancer. There is still time to enter a bra in the show and reserve a table.
A portion of the net proceeds will be donated to the Mary Ellen Locher Foundation.
To reserve a bra or table, contact Susan Stout at (423) 240-1045, or email@example.com
Quick facts for Realtors
While speaking during the WCR’s business resource luncheon, Realtor and County Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley offered several quick facts about Hamilton County. “This will help you sound knowledgeable when you’re telling your clients about the latest and greatest things happening in Hamilton County,” Smedley said.
•Hamilton County encompasses 576 square miles and has a population of 340,000, including 17,000 people who recently moved here.
•The areas in Hamilton County experiencing the most growth are East Brainerd, Soddy Daisy, and Ooltewah.
•The unemployment rate in Hamilton County is 3.7 percent, which is below the state average of 4.1 percent.
•Ninety-three percent of the businesses in Hamilton County are small, so the county is supportive of small businesses and entrepreneurs.
•Hamilton County has a AAA bond rating, which allows it to borrow money at a low interest rate.
•Hamilton County recently balanced its budget with no tax increase. There has not been a tax increase in Hamilton County in ten years.