Roy Exum: Let’s Focus On ‘Better’

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
As I stepped away from the overflow crowd at Monday night’s Town Council meeting on Signal Mountain, I leaned in to tell Jean Trohanis how sorry I was to hear of the loss of her dearest friend. But in that millisecond before I could speak, the former but still-loved elementary school principal gave me her best hallway hiss and, with a pointed finger, she ordered, “You be nice!” Lordy, from the way people were acting I thought she was seeking volunteers.
On Tuesday Jean would help bury Connie McDade, the wife of Associate School Superintendent Lee McDade, with whom the two had spent years filled with laughter and tears, worked beside one another, while building a mountain of memories higher than Walden's Ridge itself. But now she was in the midst of a noticeably angered crowd where “nice” would have been seen as an impostor. The Signal Mountain School System Viability Committee has enabled some of the angriest to step forward in the wonderful community while the kinder and gentler stayed home. Trust me, what had been hoped to be as receiving as Norman Rockwell’s classic painting of “Town Hall” was instead seen by me as a display of meanness. What a far and distant cry from the tenderness that draped Connie’s final rites on the very next day.

Monday was the first time the public had a chance to speak in the effort and despite a plea for proper decorum, civility, and equal respect, the bullies clapped and yelped and fumed in a way that, truthfully, took away from an inquisitive look at bettering the mountain’s education for every child. The Viability Committee has done a masterful job in providing the town’s citizens and those in outlying areas with candid information on whether the community should opt for a small independent school district or remain in the struggling Hamilton County system. Understand, the committee takes no stance but factually counters rumor where it now abounds.

The split is a noble question. Since the beginning of time mankind has embraced the endless quest to “be better.” How would we have ever found the New World without setting sail? Why invent penicillin? Are those surveyors seeing if they can improve Highway 127 as it twists and turns up the mountain? As the Irish poet Samuel Beckett so gloriously shared, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

One speaker, citing the fact 25 percent of this year’s Senior Class at the high school scored 30 and above on the ACT test, asked “Why fix something that’s not broken?” Why, indeed! The answer, quite bluntly, is that three out of every four members of this year’s Senior Class tested below 30 for a class average of 24.1. Don’t you see? “Fail again. Fail better.”

A number of the “Stay in HCDE” crowd want to force an immediate referendum, realizing that at least six unanswered hurdles will doom all that’s been done. The “stay” group appears as eager to sell fear, sabotage, and turmoil, which, collectively in any passionate group, breeds what is known as “mob ignorance.” For example, their spokespeople predict “all the good teachers will leave” when the better truth is a number of disenchanted but very good teachers both within and outside of HCDE would leap at the chance to teach in Camelot. Please.

If Signal Mountain were indeed a perfect place, there would be dramatic and unified efforts to answer the taxation puzzle, the crucial special-needs effort, the financial question, employee benefits and other reasons that, unsolved, will cause any vote in the near future to be bogus. The way you make the best decision is to figure out two or three scenarios that will work and then let the public pick the one that makes the most sense in the community. Right now turmoil and emotions are curses but, in time, every person involved will have the opportunity of a full understanding. It is all spelled out, publicly, on the town’s website.

It is easy to argue Signal Mountain should remain in the county system but the Viability findings reveal why status quo is no longer palatable. Nor should it be. Mountain leaders are now talking in good faith with Superintendent Bryan Johnson. Everyone knows there are problems – some classes start at the high school at 7:20 a.m.—yet the fact Signal Mountain is eager to improve has caused continuing talks with Hamilton County education leaders. Good ideas are being shared. Already the Viability study is bearing fruit within the system. My goodness, why aren’t more listening instead of yelling?

A divide among Signal Mountain’s elected leadership is heightened by those who focus on the negatives, who use loud words to intimidate another’s different opinion and fall for some T-shirt salesman’s idea if everybody dresses alike it promotes solidarity while quietly enhancing his purse. What the “stay” crowd can’t seem to envision is that when you no longer seek “better” any and everything backslides towards “worse.”

The late Bear Bryant won a lot of games at Alabama and one of his best tricks to inspire a player was a legendary ploy. Before a press conference Coach would sidle up next to a sportswriter and tell him, “Hey, here’s what I want you to do … At some point today, ask me how Johnny So-and-so is playing.” Sure enough, there would be little lull and, as a pigeon back then, Bryant would be asked the question. He’d scowl, seeming to focus at some spot on the floor, and then say, “I can’t tell much about him … he’s just average, kind of an ordinary player.”

Oh my mercy. Any player would rather be dog-cussed, kicked, or asked to run wind-sprints at some pre-dawn session rather than be labeled as “ordinary” or “average” by Coach Bryant. People with those traits don’t win championships. Nobody worth their salt is going to settle for less than the best. Next time you are having dinner with friends, let it slip you think your wife is “ordinary.” Tell your daughter she’s an “average” golfer, or your preacher you sure did enjoy his “average” sermon. You’ll find no one appreciates not being special.

In the last decade the whole Hamilton County public school system has gotten to the point it is just ordinary. We know that. There are 36 states in the country with composite ACT scores over 20. Tennessee (19.9) is not one of them. You scoff …Roy, we are one-tenth of a percentage away! … I feel your pain, brother, but if we are No. 37th, we are still behind. You reckon?

Let’s revisit real quickly. The Hamilton County Department of Education is chock full of doubt. The schools are deplorable. The school budget FY2018 was approved with a 1.9 percent increase. Want to hitch your wagon to that star? But … stop … the Signal Mountain School System Viability Committee has put a lot of effort into ways to better the community schools. This is God’s truth which I will confirm after being sworn in the court of the land: Not one person involved in the Signal Mountain split has the slightest idea what direction the citizens of the Walden Ridge community will eventually go. I promise, nothing has been decided.

Those who beg for an immediate referendum have no idea what question they might ask. This is why no one can vote right now. There are more answers due before any of us can address the truth in the ballot box.   Get this true: not one person I can find at this point can explain how this will work. I am hoping that in the months ahead, smart people can present a workable and pragmatic approach where everyone in the community can fine-tune it into opus.

Regardless, I am guaranteed this: Not one teacher, parent or student on Signal Mountain wants an “average” education -- three out of four in the Senior Class can’t score over 30 on the ACT.

The Viability study has happened because any attempt by the public schools in the last decade to be “better” has wound up as “ordinary.”

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