Signal Council Members Trade Accusations As School Pull-Out Issue Gets Testier

Saturday, December 2, 2017 - by Gail Perry

The school pull-out issue is getting testier with town council members trading accusations at a meeting on Friday afternoon.


The Signal Mountain school system viability committee’s report has been made available for all to see and multiple public meetings have been held to answer questions from the public. It will be up to the community to decide whether to move forward with the proposal of creating a school district apart from Hamilton County.


At the Friday session, the council discussed the need to determine what the citizens want to do and how to proceed. "We need to figure out if anybody cares," said Vice Mayor Dick Gee. As meetings continue to be held without knowing that, the appearance is that the council is defending and favoring the proposal, he said.


Mayor Chris Howley suggested that groups on the mountain are segmented such as those with children in the schools and those who are retired. It is those in the middle that need to be heard from, he said. 


Answers to the big questions including the buildings, how Walden can be included and special needs services are still unknown, and some of the council members advocated for waiting until they have answers before holding yet another public meeting. But Councilman Dan Landrum suggested and Vice Mayor Gee agreed that it would be important to have a segment of the next council meeting for people to ask questions and get answers with the intent of using it to gauge the community’s interest.


The proposal of breaking away from HCDE has created discord in the town. Vice Mayor Gee said that after the Stay With Hamilton County Forum was held Tuesday night, an accusation was made to him and Town Attorney Phil Noblett by an unnamed citizen that someone on the council had altered the resolution which formed the SSVC after it was approved by the council. Town Manager Boyd Veal provided documentation of past meetings which showed no evidence it had been altered. "I can deal with heated discussion," said Vice Mayor Gee, "but not with being accused of breaking the law." He said, "This story is being circulated by people who are opposed to the idea,", adding that he wants to have that person face the council and substantiate the accusation.


Mayor Howley was then accused by Councilman Landrum of “pushing the agenda” during a meeting with chairman of the SSVC Dr. John Friedl and a writer for earlier this week. The mayor replied that he did not promote for or against the idea, but had just answered questions truthfully. He said that since the study began, he had met with anybody that has invited him, including six or seven other reporters.


Because there will always be a factor that is opposed, the mayor said attacks have become personal. Councilman Landrum then accused Mayor Howley of asking for an ad hoc committee to be formed four years ago. "No, that is fake news," replied the mayor."


Councilperson Amy Speek said to Mr. Landrum. "Part of the problem is a conspiracy is going around, and I think you are leading it. Accusing Chris of originating the ad hoc group is part of the division that you are helping to create."


"The process could not have been more transparent," said Councilman Robert Spalding.


Part of the process includes discovering errors and making adjustments to the original SSVC report. Dr. Friedl and Amy Wakim told the council that a correction has been made to the proposed school district budget. It was pointed out that sales and property taxes cannot be used for capital improvements which would affect the five-10 year projections, but not the operating budget. After looking at five scenarios, said Ms. Wakim, they all show a balanced budget and that a surplus can be maintained.


Services for special needs students are a big concern for many when considering the new school district, and at the forum one citizen said many had been left out of the proposed budget. Ms. Wakim said that reducing special education services is not an option because all are required by the state. It would be up to the school district to determine if they would be provided by staff or through contract services. She said that the Signal Mountain budget has a higher percent allocated for special needs students than does the Hamilton County Schools budget.


Other discussion took place about the possibility of a new, large residential development on Signal Mountain and the additional students it would bring and if they could be accommodated. Vice Mayor Gee said, "If a development added substantially that would exceed our capacity. The priority would be to guarantee those in the present zip codes."


If such growth happens, those in the new development would be the ones left behind, said Mr. Veal.


The next steps include a series of meetings. The first will be held on Monday at the municipal gym with officials from the school districts that broke away from the Memphis schools answering questions about their experiences both good and bad. A public meeting will take place at the Dec. 11 town council meeting where citizens will be allowed to ask questions. Another meeting will be set up between Signal Mountain and HCDE to field questions from the public. Then two public meetings in January and one in February are planned.


The topic of a public/private partnership for the Mountain Arts Community Center also was under discussion at the council meeting. Creating a 501(c)(3) status is in process, Angie Landrum told the council. A significant number of people on the mountain have indicated they would give support for remodeling the building and for programming, but a written agreement with the town is needed before fundraising can officially begin. The operation of the facility could be taken over by the public partner, or it could be a landlord/tenant agreement. Town Manager Veal was given the task to work with the group to create a plan so details can be given to the council and then to the planning commission. The process is expected to take around six months.


An RFP for the Signal Mountain water system is close to being ready, said Mr. Veal. There are two scenarios - to sell it or to operate the system. It is expected to be sent out by mid-December.



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