OPINION: Veteran school board member to retire in 2024, but every board needs a Rhonda Thurman

Clint Cooper, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·4 min read

Apr. 16—Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman, to say the least, is not everyone's cup of tea.

In 2010, she had ethics charges made against her — and dismissed — for publicly criticizing school employees. The same year, she said those who didn't like public prayers at football games could "put their fingers in their ears." In 2012, she was publicly taken to task for questioning why inner-city students need more money to learn to read when slaves who learned were able to empower themselves.

Last year, Thurman disputed the need for masks for the youngest students, took heat for a Facebook post which asked why quote "all of the people telling you not to work who have not missed a paycheck," and was criticized for suggesting the board look into other options instead of buying a building from someone who "can get funding from other sources from outside our country."

Just last week, she had an argument with a fellow member during a board meeting about the school district potentially enrolling a large group of migrant children.

The District 1 representative, now in the first year of her fifth four-year term, confirmed Friday she would not run for a sixth term in 2024. She said she and her husband decided some time back 20 years would be long enough.

"Hallelujah!" one teacher wrote on Facebook. "Good riddance," said another poster. "Best news ever," said a third.

We have disagreed with Thurman on various issues over the years and agreed with her on others. But we have said, and we repeat, that every board needs a Rhonda Thurman.

She has unapologetically said she is on the side of Hamilton County taxpayers, has unapologetically advocated for her North Hamilton County district and unapologetically argued for treating all students fairly (as opposed to giving extra money to certain groups).

Thurman has questioned budgets, line items, calendars and hires. She is often the "1" in 8-1 board votes.

Many teachers and non-teachers alike have the mistaken belief that the school board exists basically to OK whatever the district asks for. Indeed, the majority of board members on some boards over the years have believed that. Some members of the current board, for all intents and purposes, believe that — or vote like that.

But while board policy states that board members "will at all times think in terms of 'children first'," it also says members "will endeavor to appraise fairly both the present and future educational needs of the community and to support improvements as finances permit." It also says members "will represent at all times the entire school community and refuse to represent special interests or partisan politics."

Thurman may not always take the district "line," but she is one of the best prepared members at meetings, knowledgeable of facts and figures and why she opposes or supports an issue. She also is not hesitant to ask questions, offer her opinion or bring up something that hasn't been thought of.

Even when we disagree with her, we believe someone like her is essential to prevent boards from becoming a rubber-stamp of their leadership or executive. We hope even if she is on the losing end of 8-1 votes, she has awakened colleagues to a new way of thinking, an opposing viewpoint or the bigger picture.

Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd serves somewhat of the same role on the body to which he was elected as did S. David Freeman on the TVA board, Gene Collins on the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority and Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn for the first term of outgoing Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.

Freeman helped convert the staid TVA board to conservation as a part of its growth, Collins persistently made inquiries about the management of Erlanger hospital, and Grohn questioned Berke's inaccessibility, his spending priorities and the city's lack of affordable housing.

Boyd, meanwhile, has questioned Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau spending and record-keeping, school district spending and the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority operations, among other things.

Thurman's decision was first revealed in a letter she penned to a parent, who had written school board members about her aforementioned actions at the last school board meeting and who said she hoped to support a better candidate for the district. Thurman, in response, told her she is "not running again" and noted that "I see we do not have much in common" and that "we live in different worlds on the same planet."

On Friday, she said her goal during her tenure was to be "a voice for the people, to hear their concerns, to try to get answers." The position, she said, "belonged to them," and she wanted them "not be intimidated" by the district office.

Throughout, Thurman said, she's been about "educating kids, not preserving the teachers' union or the administration."

According to board policy, that is her first responsibility, whether people agree with her methods or not.