The Hamilton County Department of Education presented a list of building projects for the school board’s consideration at a work session Thursday afternoon. Six projects have been identified and prioritized by the facilities committee that were ranked based on age and condition of buildings, and future growth patterns in the county according to what is known today.
The last facilities priority list was made in 1999. Some projects on that list have yet to be done, and appear again in the new list. Members of the school board were in disagreement, however, with the order of the projects that is now being recommended.
Combining Ganns Middle Valley Elementary that now is 77 years old and Falling Water Elementary that is 102 years old, and constructing a completely new building at the site of Ganns is first on the newly created list of priorities. Mr. Smith said the cost for doing this would be $26 million.
Second on the list is an addition to Wolftever Elementary because of growth in the eastern part of Hamilton County. The needed work could be done at a cost of $5 million.
Replacement of the building to house Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts is third on the list. It is now a K-8 magnet school and is award winning and a highly decorated example in the system. There is no designated zone for attendance. Students must apply and are chosen by lottery. It currently has a waiting list of 1,283. When a new building for this school is constructed, the committee recommends that it become K-12. The cost for the new, enlarged school would be $45 million.
An addition to Nolan Elementary on Signal Mountain is fourth in the priorities ranking. This school was built in 2000 and was planned for expansion. This additional space would cost $5 million.
Sale Creek Middle/High has had a 28 percent increase in enrollment since 2008, and is currently at 550. The entire middle school is housed in portable classrooms. The extensive work that is needed at this building would cost $20 million.
Last on the projects list is East Hamilton Middle/High School. This large project would convert the current building to a high school and construct a new building for the middle school. This work could be done for $45 million.
The majority of the board members that spoke, disagreed with order that the facilities committee recommended. Only board member Greg Martin, who lives in Hixson, supported the list as presented. He said that since 2009 enrollment at that school has increased 17 percent and that over-crowding is tremendous. He also suggested waiting to see how much Hamilton County will fund before finalizing the building order.
School board member David Testerman expressed strong opposition to the priorities list, saying that CSLA should maintain the number one position. With all of the growth occurring in east Hamilton County, increasing the capacity of that school could relieve over-crowding from all across the system. Donna Horn said “I’m in agreement with David about CSLA.” In her opinion it would be a benefit for the award winning school that is an asset to the community, to “look good.”
Rhonda Thurman and Mr. Testerman were in agreement about Sale Creek. She said the Sale Creek community has been neglected. Too many portable buildings are in use and with 550 students there are only two girls and two boys’ restrooms. Ms. Thurman emphasized her disappointment that Sale Creek is so far down on the list. Mr. Testerman would place this project second in the list of priorities.
George Ricks commented that he would like to see an even balance of improvements throughout the district. Each one needs something, he said. He also agreed with the assessments that Sale Creek needed work to remove the portable buildings, but said the same was true in his district.
Jeffrey Wilson recognized that a lot of planning is growth driven, and that it is just a fact that some kids have better facilities than others; however, he added that there are good teachers in all of them.
Both Mr. Wilson and Rhonda Thurman said it should be up to the school board to determine their needs and make the choices versus leaving it up to the county commission. Ms. Thurman also said she does not expect to receive more money from the county. With a total cost to do all six projects collectively totaling $140 million, Superintendant Smith proposed the facilities committee meet with the county commission and consider the needs of the school system as a whole.
Board member Joe Galloway said, “All of the arguments are good and valid. They just need to find a way to determine the pecking order.” Jeffery Wilson concluded that the elected bodies need to come together in a community effort to decide the future of the schools.
In other business, an update was given to the board concerning surplus property that was included in the Hamilton County surplus properties listing. Bids have been received for Ooltewah for $2,201,000 and The Summit for $55,000. The best and final proposals have a deadline of March 18. The board was told they have no obligation to accept any bid. Proceeds from sale of these properties would be used for capital improvements in the schools or for new purchases as recommended by the board.