Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn fired the first shot, writing a letter critical of education officials and alleging that the city’s schools have a “culture of terror,” drugs are rampant, and students are at risk of being assaulted.
On Monday, school supporters and students fired back in a barrage that started with an afternoon press conference at Oak Ridge High School and ended at a City Council meeting.
During the Council meeting, Chuck Agle, who serves on the Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission and is the husband of school board member Angi Agle, asked council members to express their disapproval by censuring Baughn. To imply that Oak Ridge Schools widely tolerate wrongdoing is wrong, Agle said.
“The Oak Ridge school system is one of the highest-performing in the nation,” he said.
Others said they read Baughn’s letter with disbelief and were disappointed and insulted.
“I don’t know what school system was being described because it wasn’t the school system that I have attended,” said Jim Andress, vice president of the ORHS Class of 2013, a National Merit Semifinalist, and member of a two-student ORHS team that made it to the national finals of the 2012 Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology in Washington, D.C.
ORHS student Lois Johnson said she has lived in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
“I feel more safe at Oak Ridge High School than I do anywhere else,” Johnson said.
Not everyone was critical of Baughn, though. One of the dozen speakers at Monday’s Council meeting was Brenda Fellner, a former kindergarten teacher at Linden Elementary School.
“These are our top-notch students,” Fellner said, suggesting other students might have different perspectives. “There is a problem in Oak Ridge. We have had a problem before.”
She said the school system and City Council need to work to make it better.
Baughn, who used a May 9 memo from the city’s police chief to allege that the schools have been obstructive, remained silent as she was lambasted during the afternoon press conference and Monday evening City Council meeting. But after the Council meeting, she was upbeat. She said she was encouraged by the discussion of school issues that had been triggered by her letter to new superintendent Bruce Borchers and the subsequent turnout at the City Council meeting.
The last time there was a crowd like that at a Council meeting, Baughn said, was in December, after she asked Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan to drop his bid for a third term as mayor and consider resigning. That proposal also generated vigorous debate.
Baughn was a new Council member at the time. She was one of five candidates who ran for three seats in the Nov. 6 election, and she received the second highest number of total votes in November, collecting more votes than anyone else in Anderson County.
Still, a few residents at Monday’s Council meeting questioned Baughn’s “confrontational style” and the use of her Council seat to launch an “attack” that reverberated around the region.
“When I read it, I like many others, was very, very disappointed,” said Cathy Toth, whose son A.J. was also a National Merit Semifinalist and competed with Andress in the Siemens Competition. “That is so deeply damaging.”
In online comments, however, others have applauded Baughn for raising what they consider legitimate concerns about drugs and violence, and taking on the establishment, or, as a few have called it, the “good old boys network.” Baughn said her supporters, including parents and staff who haven’t yet agreed to publicly air their concerns, are “glad that someone finally said something.”
Note: This story was updated at 7:05 a.m. July 10.