With its work done, the Signal Mountain Town Council on Friday agreed to disband the School System Viability Committee. The committee, which had been tasked with determining if an independent school system for the mountain community would be viable, separate from Hamilton County Department of Education, found that it would be.
Councilman Dan Landrum asked the council to go further and state that it was no longer pursuing a pullout from the schools. Vice Mayor Dick Gee seconded the motion, but Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek were opposed. Councilman Robert Spalding abstained.
The county then voted 3-2 (with Landrum and Gee opposed) to note that the SSVC did say it was viable to set up a separate school system.
The study answered the question that a smaller system would be more beneficial for students and improve their education, and a workable budget was developed in the process. But a way to fully include students living on the mountain in unincorporated areas of Hamilton County outside of the Towns of Signal Mountain and Walden has not yet been found. Dr. John Friedl, chairman of the SVCC, told the council that it has become clear from conversations with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and "chatter from the Hamilton County school board," that the county will not support an interlocal agreement to allow a three-community school district.
Dr. Friedl offered an option that he said has not been looked into yet - to develop a district for the Towns of Signal Mountain and Walden with a choice for others on the mountain. This choice would offer a small local school system for all the students up to the capacity of the buildings. The problem remains, said Mayor Howley, that a guarantee could not be made for parents in those areas to vote or have a spot on the school board.
Vice Mayor Gee said he does not consider that discussion of the issue is over yet, but that at this point, he feels it unnecessary for further investigation by the council. It should now be a citizen movement, he said. The committee’s "effort for an unpaid job was spectacular," he said. "They looked at things that were so important."
Mayor Howley said that even if the town does not want to pursue a separate district, the council owed the citizens what they had been promised from the beginning - a public meeting where they would be able to ask questions, get answers and express their opinions. Some of those questions could only be answered by members of the SVCC who had done such extensive research, he said. If such a meeting is held after the committee has been disbanded, Dr. Friedl said he would still come and address the questions, but other members would have to be asked individually if they would be willing to participate.
Dissolving the committee will be done by a resolution that will be voted on at the next council meeting on Feb. 12. It will become effective at passage of the resolution.
Council member Landrum told the council that he wanted to go on record that the town is not pursuing the matter further and made a motion that the council would have no more involvement. "We were never pursuing," said Council member Speek, who was the council’s liaison to the SSVC. Councilman Landrum persisted asking if the council as a body will be able to pursue it and be able to direct staff in continued exploration. Town Manager Boyd Veal said there is a fine line between pursuit and investigation. Councilman Landrum replied that the town should cease and desist any investigation. "So we’re not going to do what we promised to the public?" said Mayor Howley.
"You’re trying to prevent any town employee or resources to investigate?" Ms. Speek asked Councilman Landrum. "We are able to do that about other things," she said.
"You’re creating a conspiracy, Dan," said Councilman Spalding. "It was a research project, we didn’t have a pre-conceived condition," he said and added "You’re trying to prevent us from looking forward."
Councilman Spalding told the council that Signal Mountain and Walden need to protect their investment which was jointly $10 million. He said for the record the town needed to continue monitoring the school board and how it responds to Signal Mountain’s concerns. "It was disturbing that two weeks ago, a member of the school board was unaware of our issues," he said. He made the request that their leadership address Signal Mountain’s concerns.
Mayor Howley made a suggestion to create an education board for the town that could serve as a voice for issues and ideas and work with the HCDE on the town’s behalf. The topic will be discussed at the next council meeting.
In other business, City Manager Veal outlined the public/private agreement in development concerning the Mountain Arts Community Center. Citizens have formed a group that proposes to take over the management of the MACC from the town and run it. This group has requested that the town continue to fully support the facility at the same level as in the past, for the first two years of the new arrangement. After that, the citizen group would take over operations and town funding would decrease. In 2017 the operating cost was $134.500 after adjustments made by subtracting revenue that it generated.
Mr. Veal has completed a lease with the MACC that has some "built in support," he said, that is in the form of items that a landlord would normally do. The yearly operating budget varies, he said, and the money that the facility made in 2017 was at an all-time low of $32,000 because the auditorium was not in use due to needed renovations. The auditorium is the biggest money maker for the MACC and revenue is expected to increase when it is back in service.
It was decided that the town’s first-year contribution would be based on operating costs from the last 12 months. The revenue generated the following year will be looked at to establish the amount of support that the town will provide the second year.
The council voted to move forward with replacement of the Timberlinks playground. It had been put on hold to determine the placement. It has been decided that the old location will be the best. Site work has already been started. It will be built as a two-part project. The town has put aside $30,000 for the first phase that will install some equipment and swings, a canopy for shade, mulch and a border of logs. Benches will be added to the area with picnic tables. The second phase is expected to cost $40,000.
The Assistance to Firefighters Grant application was given approval. There are new standards for fire departments, said Chief Eric Mitchell, that now require each firefighter to have two sets of equipment so one can be cleaned after use. The application will be for an amount not to exceed $70,000. If received, the grant would cover 90 percent of the amount to buy the equipment with the town contributing $7,000.