After eight months of investigating the viability of Signal Mountain establishing a separate school district, a committee of six has determined that it is feasible and would meet the goal of improving the education provided to students. The committee was also tasked with identifying obstacles and if possible to find ways to overcome them. Results of the report were presented to the public at a meeting Wednesday night.
Hamilton County has not provided the funding needed for the basic operations and basic classroom supplies needed for the schools on Signal Mountain, the group said.
The difference is made up in contributions from the town and parents. In 2016 the Mountain Education Fund contributed $343,000 for extra teachers, extra programs and guidance counselors among other enrichments. Another $300,000 was given by parents from supply fees to cover basic needed items. Additionally, a survey of parents yielded 738 responses that identified a desire for improvements with the schools. The number one request, said Chairman of the Committee Dr. John Friedl, was a later start time. The current time of 7:25 a.m. is considered to have a detrimental effect. The independent school system has budgeted for more buses that would allow for a later start to the school day.
The study concluded that the school buildings have adequate space for the number of students over the long term and are in generally good condition. Thrasher Elementary does have some deferred maintenance issues. The current teachers and staff can all be hired with a letter of intent. They would retain tenure and state law requires the same salary and benefits if transitioning to an independent system. The International Baccalaureate program would be continued and would not need to be recertified. Students that live in the Town of Signal Mountain should be allowed, as Hamilton County residents, to apply to the county magnet schools. Special education programs would be continued at the same level that is now offered.
The prevailing issue is how much it would cost to improve education with the creation of a new system. Amy Wakem created the proposed budget for the first year totaling $20.7 million. Tennessee law dictates that 95 percent funding would come from the state and from Hamilton County. The municipality would be responsible for five percent. The budget was created by duplicating Hamilton County’s current level of spending, including what the town’s contributions cover, said Ms. Wakem. She concluded there would be a surplus of $1.9 million. The budget was approved by the state board of education and the chief financial officer of Hamilton County Schools.
Three obstacles that were identified included who controls the buildings. Hamilton County Board of Education Attorney Scott Bennett has said that the buildings would either be sold or repurposed. There is a strong argument that Hamilton County does not own them but holds them in trust, said Dr. Friedl, and that if a new system is created, ownership would be transferred. This issue may need to be resolved in the courts, he said.
Another complication is how to include Walden and the unincorporated areas of Hamilton County that are on the mountain. An amendment to the state law that restricts a school district to a single municipality is seen as the best way to overcome the problem. This amendment could allow contiguous municipalities to partner in the creation of a school district, each having representation and sharing financial obligations. If Hamilton County did not participate, students from the unincorporated areas could attend by paying a user fee, as long as there is room.
An interlocal agreement between the town, Walden and Hamilton County has been considered, but would not be a permanent arrangement. With the possibility of a new school district becoming a draw for population growth, it is feared that if needed, added classroom space might become the sole responsibility of the Town of Signal Mountain.
The mandatory financial contribution to the new school system is seen as another obstacle. State law requires that the municipality contribute 15 cents for every $100 of assessed property value. This means that Signal Mountain would be required to supply $438,000. There is a question if a portion of that amount could be satisfied with in-kind contributions. To fulfill this obligation, the town could have to increase property taxes. The example given would mean a tax increase of $150 for a house that is assessed for $400,000.
It was noted that the effect on Hamilton County Schools, if Signal Mountain leaves, would mean a loss of $19 milli
on in revenue, which would be offset by the reduction of its operating cost by $19 million. The money would just be reallocated.
Some other facts given in response to questions from the council include the amount of $8,517 that would follow each student in the new school district compared to $8,430 per student in Hamilton County. The classroom size was not necessarily reduced in the new school districts that were established in Shelby County, Tennessee and that were used for comparison to Signal Mountain, but the curriculum was changed to be based on the needs of the students. Three years has not been enough time for the new Shelby County School systems to improve test scores. All six new systems raised sales taxes by one half cent in preparation of forming the new school districts.
Charles Spencer was the only member of the committee that disagreed with the conclusions formed by the rest of the group. He characterized his opinion as a desire for additional information. He said he thought the budget was excellent but had issues with some of the assumptions behind it. The issues included risks involved with buildings and lawsuits among other things. There is a financial risk with the town taking on a financial obligation, he said.
At the town council agenda meeting this coming Friday, discussion will take place about potential paths forward, said Mayor Chris Howley. Now the facts are on the table, he said, and public engagement and feed back is needed before any decisions.