Today is Election Day: Meet Your 2020 Hamilton County School Board Candidates

By Holly Bonner

Cardboard street signs, vibrant "I voted" stickers and smiling strangers on street corners are all sure signs that election season is here. Today is Election Day, and three Hamilton County School Board districts are on the ballot. District 1, District 2 and District 7 are looking to elect a school board member who will help address issues at the forefront of education, especially diversity and inclusion and COVID-19. 

To help you make your vote, we sat down (virtually) with each candidate to learn more about why they're running and what they hope to accomplish as a school board member. While they bring a vast collection of interests and expertise, they all agree on one thing  – education is the backbone of our business community.

DISTRICT 1


Rhonda Thurman

TREND: Hamilton County Schools is our area’s largest employer. What experience, personal or professional, has prepared you for the school board?

Thurman: I have worked with the public for the last 45 years. I feel that thousands of conversations with Hamilton County citizens have given me a lot of insight into what Hamilton County wants for their child’s education. They want a safe learning environment. They want their children to read and do basic math. They want to have a wide range of opportunities for their children.

TREND: In this election, you are running for District 1. What do you think are the biggest challenges or opportunities for this district? What do you propose be done about them?

Thurman: One of the biggest challenges right now facing, not only District 1, but the entire Hamilton County school system, is reopening our schools in August. While I appreciate the work of the School Reopening Task Force, I do not think requiring students to wear masks is a good idea. I think parents who do not want their students to wear a mask should wear a mask and those who do not want them to wear a mask should not be forced to do so. I feel the same way about teachers. Teachers, principals and other school personnel already have their plates full trying to educate students. Now, to add “mask duty” to their daily ritual is going to take away from educational time.

In District 1, in particular, one of the main challenges is taking another look at the MGT Facilities Report. The $500,000 report called for closing and combining some of the schools in District 1 while relocating others. After discussions with administrators, I think we have a much better feel for what the community needs and wants and we are prepared to put our plan forward. The main piece of the facilities plan we came up with in our discussions is a new Soddy Daisy Middle School. 

Our district is growing fast. Sale Creek has a new middle school and Sale Creek High is getting a new football field (they were the only high school in the county without a football field).

In District 1, we have so many great opportunities. Our schools do very well academically. We also have a great vocational school, Sequoyah Vocational School. With so many people in Hamilton County wanting more vocational education, I hope to prevent the administration in the central office from cutting any more of Sequoyah’s vocational programs. Instead of cutting programs, we will add more vocational opportunities. 

TREND: What kind of relationship should a district/the board have with the business community? Why do you think this is important?

Thurman: The school system should have a close relationship with the business community. After all, the school system’s job is to educate students so they can go into the workforce and become productive members of society. We need to hear from businesses to get assessments of the graduates we are producing to make sure we are doing our job.

TREND: Thriving school systems are an attractive factor for businesses and employees looking to move to the area. The Hamilton County School system has seen great success in the past two years and received multiple accolades for the hard work of students, teachers and leaders. What do you view as the most significant contributing factor to this success?

Thurman: I think Dr. Johnson’s enthusiasm and focus on working with businesses to give our high school students more real-life occupational opportunities has been a plus. Dr. Johnson’s willingness to allow some open enrollment, giving parents more educational choices, has also been a plus. I would love to see him continue and do a true, total open enrollment in Hamilton County. Students and parents are much happier when they can choose to go to any school in the county. In the elementary grades, the spotlight across the country has been on literacy scores. I think Hamilton County has done a lot of work to get students reading on grade level. However, we are still a long way from where we need to be. I pray we continue to head in the right direction because, until we get students reading, nothing else matters. Our math scores have improved, but the only direction we could have gone is up. Hamilton County destroyed our math education years ago with “fuzzy math." The Board was told that our new math curriculum was back to basic math in the elementary grades. But, as many parents found out during the shutdown, that was not the case. Parents found out that their children’s math was drawing boxes, lines, circles and squiggly lines. I hope Dr. Johnson truly gets back to basic math at the elementary level. If he does, I think he will see students understanding and enjoying math, and math scores will go up quickly.

TREND: If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be?

Thurman: I’d have to say Margaret Thatcher.

Stephan E. Vickers

TREND: Hamilton County Schools is our area’s largest employer. What experience, personal or professional, has prepared you for the school board?

Vickers: As a Senior Data Analyst, I work with data, trends and forecasting on a daily basis. I would use these skills of analysis in studying important items, such as the budget, student achievement and teacher retention rates, as well as finding ways that our resources could be best used. 

I would bring my strong skills of collaboration and data analysis to the school board. Many of the projects I work on are a collaboration of a team of colleagues. I am very good at working with others and communicating my ideas clearly. I can use these skills in collaborating with my fellow board members, the superintendent, commissioners, teachers, parents and members of the community so that they are being represented adequately.

Another strength I would bring to the school board is all the perspectives around me. I see the school system through the lens of a parent, a teacher, a student and a member of the community. I believe that this is something that is valuable to bring to the school board, so that all dynamics are taken into consideration when making critical decisions. 

TREND: In this election, you are running for District 1. What do you think are the biggest challenges or opportunities for this district? What do you propose be done about them?

Vickers: The biggest challenges right now include COVID-19 preparedness and infrastructure for our District 1 schools.

The Task Force charged with developing the reopening plan has worked tirelessly, always keeping student and staff safety at the forefront. I believe that educating families about the different options available and listening to their concerns is the way a board member should approach this challenge. 

When it comes to infrastructure, the District 1 School Board member should advocate for the students, families and teachers that he represents. He or she should ensure that their needs are addressed and communicated to the other board members, the superintendent and his staff. 

TREND: What kind of relationship should a district/the board have with the business community? Why do you think this is important?

Vickers: The Hamilton County School District is charged with developing future employees and leaders, many of whom will stay in this community. The relationship with the business community should be a partnership. I think it is important, especially in our ever-changing world, that the school system has community support, but also input on what kinds of skills are necessary for college and the workforce. The business community could also give great insight into our vocational programs. 

TREND: Thriving school systems are an attractive factor for businesses and employees looking to move to the area. The Hamilton County School system has seen great success in the past two years and received multiple accolades for the hard work of students, teachers and leaders. What do you view as the most significant contributing factor to this success?

Vickers: Absolutely. Our teachers and students have worked so hard. I believe that the most significant contributing factor to this success is that very thing – the work being done by our teachers and students. But, in order for that work to continue to take place, we must continue to recruit and retain top talent in our district. Our leaders understand the impact of good teachers on the front line, in the schools every single day. Also, providing quality, relevant professional development is of utmost importance to continue this work and to continue being the fastest improving district in the state. 

TREND: If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be?

Vickers: If I could trade places with anyone for a week, it would be President Ronald Reagan. He was known for being “The Great Communicator,” for his ability to communicate with others, across political parties and even across continents. Also called “The Gipper,” for his portrayal of George Gipp. Gipp was known for pursuing success in honor of others. Right away, this makes me think of our teachers, who pursue success for their students every single day. 

The ability to communicate with others is perhaps the most important skill for a school board member to have. Every school board member should be able to represent all community members, including students and teachers. This requires the ability to communicate and collaborate with others. 

 

DISTRICT 2


Marco Perez

TREND: Hamilton County Schools is our area’s largest employer. What experience, personal or professional, has prepared you for the school board?

Perez: I have 20 years of experience in the roles of operations and finance for both nonprofit and for-profit companies. My responsibilities have always been to build greater efficiencies and identify risks to the financial stability of a business. I have spent my years in Hamilton County serving this community to make it a better place for all of us. I’m most proud of my work in supporting startups among minority-owned and women-owned businesses. I have also volunteered in the area of housing while on the board of the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, ensuring that we are a welcoming community by supporting the work of La Paz Chattanooga.

The education of our children is our greatest priority, as parents and community members, and it is my goal to support the improvement of our schools for all of our students. As the father of three girls educated in the public schools on Signal Mountain, I have a vested interest in the outcomes of our schools. My oldest daughter graduated last year. Our school experience has been wonderful, but every student deserves an excellent education regardless of where they live.

TREND: In this election, you are running for District 2. What do you think are the biggest challenges or opportunities for this district? What do you propose be done about them?

Perez: We live in an incredible district that continues to grow and attract more people of all ages. As families are looking for a place to establish their roots, our community is more and more attractive. Nevertheless, the challenges are the same challenges of all communities. Not everyone is seeing the same opportunity for economic mobility. The achievement of our schools is clearly marked across socio-economic lines, creating a gap that we must improve on. Two of our schools are always considered for closure, which causes disinvestment in their current buildings, as well as a sense of uncertainty in the community. In the pursuit of efficiency, we must also ensure quality. 

As a school board member, I will need to protect that our efforts to strengthen the bonds with the community grow, that our parents feel connected with their school and its staff and that somebody is advocating for the investment in all of our schools. We have truly excellent schools in our district and we need to highlight so many of their strengths and their programs. As I speak to parents throughout the district, they are proud of the school that their child goes to. As a school board member, I need to bring more attention to the great work happening in District 2 and encourage investment by the community as a whole in the support of that work.

TREND: What kind of relationship should a district/the board have with the business community? Why do you think this is important?

Perez: There has been a greater recognition that the business community’s involvement in the public schools only enhances the wellbeing of our community as a whole. Not only have many companies partnered with the schools to participate in the Future-Ready programs, but they have also increased their role in developing mentoring relationships and helping students get real-life experience through internships. As a business consultant and owner, I can attest that it serves our local businesses to have excellent schools as it only enhances their workforce. I would like to see more businesses adopt schools as opportunities to invest in the wellbeing of our district as a whole. 

TREND: Thriving school systems are an attractive factor for businesses and employees looking to move to the area. The Hamilton County School system has seen great success in the past two years and received multiple accolades for the hard work of students, teachers and leaders. What do you view as the most significant contributing factor to this success?

Perez: It always starts with leadership and vision. Dr. Johnson has brought great leadership to Hamilton County’s administration, and the school board, along with his team, has created a pathway for success through the Future-Ready Strategic Plan for 2023. There has been tremendous growth in transparency and communication with community members. This gives people more confidence that the schools are heading in the right direction, which has been proven through the state’s own evaluations of our district. As a school board member, my task would be to ensure that we continue meeting those goals and to hold leadership accountable by maintaining high standards. 

TREND: If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be?

Perez: My father, also named Marco Perez, has always been the man I admire the most. He has shaken hands with presidents, and yet treats every person with the same respect. He has lived his life in service to others while successfully building various businesses. He lives out his faith in a very practical way by being kind and generous to those around him. Even for a week, I would like to be like him.

Tom Decosimo

TREND: Hamilton County Schools is our area’s largest employer. What experience, personal or professional, has prepared you for the school board?

Decosimo: I graduated in 1977 from the University of Tennessee Knoxville with a degree in business administration and accounting. I earned my CPA license, having passed the rigorous CPA exam and demonstrated two years of practice, in 1980. I was fortunate to work both in auditing and tax for large privately-held businesses (businesses with revenues over $1 billion) in my early years of practice and was put on the merger and acquisition team where I helped clients acquire and finance acquisitions. All together our team worked on transactions totaling over $15 billion. We worked on over 100 Coca-Cola and 7 Up franchise acquisitions and we led the acquisition of five major league baseball teams. In merger and acquisition, you must study in detail the revenue and expenses of a company for the past five years, then project out the operations of a merged company for at least five years to demonstrate how the combined operation will pay off the debt borrowed to acquire the target and to determine the rate of return that the equity will have. As a partner in the Decosimo CPA firm, we grew our firm to be the largest Tennessee-based CPA firm.

In addition to being a CPA, I am an Accredited Senior Appraiser (ASA) with the American Society of Appraisers and have earned the Accredited in Business Valuation designation with the American Institute of CPAs. I have prepared hundreds of valuations throughout my career and have testified on issues related to valuation in the United States Tax Court in Washington D.C.

I am the founding managing principal of Decosimo Corporate Finance, LLC, a broker/dealer, member FINRA/SIPC, where we specialize in selling private businesses. Over the past five years, we have sold companies for a value of over $450 million. As managing principal, I hold the following security licenses – Series 7, 24, 28, 79 (investment banking) and 63.

I have been on the board of trustees of Richmont Graduate University (RGU) since 1999 where I have served as the Chairman of the Finance Committee, except for the six years I served as Board Chair. RGU has 270 full-time graduate students earning their degrees in psychological counseling. Richmont is accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Through our Chattanooga-based Henegar Counseling Center, we offer counseling and psychological services delivered with the highest professional standards while remaining faithful to Christian traditions. We also service the inner city with no or reduced-cost counseling.

TREND: In this election, you are running for District 2. What do you think are the biggest challenges or opportunities for this district? What do you propose be done about them?

Decosimo: District 2 is fortunate to have eight very fine schools; two high schools (Signal Mtn. combining the high school and the middle), one middle and five elementary schools. One of the biggest issues facing D2 is the discussion related to the consolidation of our Rivermont and Alpine Crest Elementary schools with Dupont. I place a very important emphasis on community schools and believe both Rivermont and Alpine Crest are crucial to the neighborhoods they serve. When young couples are looking for a neighborhood to move into, much consideration is given to the proximity of elementary schools. An important issue facing Signal Mountain is the preservation of the MEF (Mountain Education Foundation). That fund, established over 25 years ago and funded by the parents and citizens of Signal Mountain, must continue to enhance the educational experience of Signal Mountain’s 2,500 students. Money raised, over $7 million since its founding, should continue to enhance the educational experience of the children and never be considered in the HCDE budgeting for the mountain schools.

TREND: What kind of relationship should a district/the board have with the business community? Why do you think this is important?

Decosimo: Hamilton County Schools are integral to the success of our business community and there should be a strong partnership between the two groups. An educated citizenry is a vital requisite to a county that thrives – that means well-paid jobs for all our families. Our schools must graduate young adults with foundational educations that can lead them to university, community college, the trades or direct entry into the workforce. It is imperative that the HCDE work together with our business community. 

TREND: Thriving school systems are an attractive factor for businesses and employees looking to move to the area. The Hamilton County School system has seen great success in the past two years and received multiple accolades for the hard work of students, teachers and leaders. What do you view as the most significant contributing factor to this success?

Decosimo: I am in full agreement that a thriving school system is crucial to attracting businesses. I am not, however, of the belief that our schools have turned the corner. I am pleased that much progress has been made, but the low average literacy rate of our graduates and the need of too many of students to take remedial courses after graduation is unacceptable. At the top levels, our schools are graduating students that can go to any college in the nation. At the medium level, our students perform very well. It is the students that are not prepared to further their education and enter the workforce that concern me. This is where a lot of attention needs to be focused. Too many of our children come to their first day of school not prepared to learn and that is a proximate cause of our low literacy rates. I’m not ready to cite the “significant contributing factors to this success” until I see real and tangible evidence that our literacy rates for students completing third grade are improved from 35%.

TREND: If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be?

Decosimo: It would be my children. Alexis has her Master’s degree in art therapy and her doctorate in public health. She, at 31, has a successful art therapy practice and is the founder of Playing to Live, a nonprofit that consults with worldwide organizations to provide programming to help children in refugee camps overcome trauma. My son, Garnett, who serves on Alexis’s board, is 33 and serves as Gov. Bill Lee’s Director of Federal Affairs and is a Senior Policy Advisor. He is a CPA with four years of accounting experience and served three U.S. senators on Capitol Hill. He has a degree from UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs and received a Master’s degree in accounting. They both spent seven years in Hamilton County schools. They wake up every day to incredible challenges and a drive to serve their communities and use the terrific educational opportunities they were blessed to have. My wish is that all children have the foundational educations my children have had.

 

DISTRICT 7


Debbi Meyers

TREND: Hamilton County Schools is our area’s largest employer. What experience, personal or professional, has prepared you for the school board?

Meyers: I believe that my professional career as a Human Resource Director as well as Supreme Court Mediator will be a tremendous asset to the Hamilton County School Board. My experience allows me the opportunity to bring business efficiencies as well as best practices and protocols that are necessary in any organization. I also have grandchildren in Hamilton County Schools and two daughters who are elementary school teachers. I understand the challenges that teachers and students face in the classroom. I am eager to bring my skills of leadership, collaboration and organizational structure efficiency learned in the private sector to the school board. I believe my ability to lead divided parties together by bridging the gap between people with different views and opinions and bringing them to common ground is needed at the school board level.   

TREND: In this election, you are running for District 7. What do you think are the biggest challenges or opportunities for this district? What do you propose be done about them?

Meyers: More than 65% of all the taxpayers in District 7, research has shown, have traditional values and conservative principles. As a school board member, I would make sure the policies we implement are consistent with the views of the citizens of District 7 and the conservative majority. Our current District 7 School Board member has lost the trust of many parents and taxpayers in our district due to his voting record. I would diligently work towards restoring the trust in our district by being the voice of the people that vote me into that position. We haven’t had that for the past four years. 

TREND: What kind of relationship should a district/the board have with the business community? Why do you think this is important?

Meyers: Businesses partnering with public schools creates a number of mutually beneficial advantages for each party. Businesses that support schools with contributions of volunteer time and money are viewed as good corporate citizens interested in helping shape the local workforce. Schools benefit by receiving tangible and intangible assistance from the private sector. As businesses support public schools by offering internships and job shadowing opportunities, it helps produce a better educated future workforce. Students get hands-on, real-world work experience that helps them gain a better understanding of the specific skills and education employers are looking for. These experiences better prepare students to enter the workforce following graduation. The result is better trained employees for businesses to hire.

TREND: Thriving school systems are an attractive factor for businesses and employees looking to move to the area. The Hamilton County School system has seen great success in the past two years and received multiple accolades for the hard work of students, teachers and leaders. What do you view as the most significant contributing factor to this success?

Meyers:

1.  If you are referring to the TVAS scores, the administrative staff needed to fully understand the metrics by which the state rates a school’s improvements from year to year. I think this has been well defined.

2.  Part of our success is attributed to having teachers that have the correct guidance and curriculum goals to meet the metrics for scoring 3,4 and 5s on literacy and math and showing improvement in closing the gap between financially and socially disadvantaged students and the state average score

3.  However, we must keep everything in proper perspective and note that with all the accolades the HCDE has recently received, our ACT scores are still below the state average and we have a very large percentage of students graduating not on grade level in English arts and math. We must remain focused on improving our student’s literacy and math achievement in order for all graduates to have the opportunity to succeed.

TREND: If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be?

Meyers: This is difficult to answer as I admire a number of individuals that paved the way for future generations to thrive and prosper. A few of them would be Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Reverend Billy Graham and Martin Luther King. 

Joe Wingate

(Responses coming soon)