At the Facilities Committee meeting Monday night, Hamilton County School Board member Ben Connor of District 6 suggested that Center for Creative Arts in North Chattanooga be relocated to the downtown Gateway building to solve the school’s overcrowding problems.
The school board is working through community feedback after a county-wide school facilities recommendation was made by school and county officials in August.
County Mayor Weston Wamp’s plans to convert the Gateway building into a public career and technical school have progressed since BlueCross BlueShield put the 11-acre property up for sale in April. Tax increment financing measures passed by the city and the county about three weeks ago specify that the Gateway school would get up to $38 million over the next 10 years, as long as the building is used for career and technical pathways.
Mr. Connor said CCA added four new CTE pathways this year, plus the school doesn’t need athletic fields, which the Gateway property couldn’t accommodate. CCA would have room to grow in Gateway’s 185,000 square feet, he said, and even suggested moving Normal Park Museum Magnet to the bigger CCA property "up the hill.”
“That seems to check every box,” he said.
Members of the board also suggested relocating the Howard Connect STEM-focused magnet middle school to the Gateway building, with CCA.
“That is really not a workable option,” said Superintendent Dr. Justin Robertson. He said that relieving overcrowding is not the highest and best use of the Gateway building, though school board member Marco Perez said his priorities of overcrowded and failing facilities could be addressed by using Gateway, and he doesn’t want to reinvent the county’s already successful technical schools.
“I do very much appreciate their willingness to offer some dollars,” said County Commissioner Steve Highlander to the city. Public schools are funded only by the county. He said such vocational pathways located downtown are good for industries moving in and good for Westside residents' careers.
County Mayor Wamp said Tuesday, “Hamilton County acquired the Gateway site from BlueCross BlueShield and forged a partnership with the developers of The Bend and the City of Chattanooga based on a bold new vision for career and technical education in downtown. We have not wavered in our commitment, and the county plans to fund the redevelopment of the facility in early 2024.”
Mr. Connor said three schools in his district are the oldest in the county: Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences built in 1922, Normal Park Upper School built in 1931 and Normal Park Lower School built in 1938. Alpine Crest, Rivermont and DuPont elementary schools are in their 60s. CCA students are using a crawl space for a recording studio and a locker room for a kiln.
“We don’t have to take that above and beyond,” said board member Karitsa Jones, advocating for the relocation of zoned schools to Gateway, technical program or not. Ms. Jones said that magnet schools shouldn’t get a new building before zoned schools do.
School Board member Jill Black said that the Gateway location offers a community connection for students at Battle Academy and Calvin Donaldson elementary schools that Orchard Knob Middle School does not.
MEGA SCHOOLS AND OVERCROWDING
School Board member Rhonda Thurman said that the county’s vocational schools are too divided and separated, making good vocational teachers hard to accumulate.
“If we’re going to have a mega school, there’s where to have it,” she said.
The community and the school board want elementary schools with 650 to 800 students, which would mean that no more than two elementary schools are consolidated into one.
The facilities recommendation was to close Clifton Hills and assimilate students into East Lake and East Side elementary schools.
“This probably doesn’t make sense the way it was proposed and we probably need to think about it differently,” Dr. Robertson said.
Clifton Hills Elementary School families overwhelmingly requested that the school stay where it is and be expanded in place.
Board members said that schools should not be closed in the fastest-growing part of Chattanooga, Southside. But Dr. Robertson said enrollment shows that downtown growth has flattened out. The Bend and the new Lookouts stadium won’t have a huge impact on downtown school growth, it was stated, but the Chattanooga Housing Authority project in the Westside neighborhood will.
Clifton Hills, built in 1966, has 648 students and overflows into 16 portable classrooms. Part of the property is in a flood zone, though 13-year staff member Kristen Light told the board that flooding has never been a problem in the building and only once made the parking lot inaccessible.
Half of Clifton Hills students and their parents walk to school.
“It was very evident that that particular neighborhood needs to maintain a school within walking distance,” said Ms. Black.
Mr. Perez said the Clifton Hills building is “not worthy of the students of Hamilton County” and placed it as a priority of the facilities recommendation’s phase one, addressed within the first three years.
East Lake and East Side have about 550 students each, so a consolidated school would pass the 800-student goal.
Rezoning all of downtown to cap each school at 700 students would be too disruptive, Dr. Robertson said. Though Mr. Perez said he does not want to pause plans for Clifton Hills, Dr. Robertson said a forthcoming audit of the city’s properties may reveal the best solution for new downtown elementary schools.
AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IN RED BANK
The board agreed that Red Bank should have an elementary school within city limits. A small survey of 198 people found that an overwhelming number of residents want to keep Alpine Crest and DuPont elementary schools the way they are. The second-favorite plan would consolidate Rivermont Elementary School into Alpine Crest at the 17-acre Alpine Crest site.
Final preferences of those surveyed were to build a new elementary school either at the former White Oak Elementary School property or at the former Red Bank Middle School property on Dayton Boulevard.
Red Bank Vice-Mayor Stefanie Dalton told the board that Red Bank will employ a firm by the end of the year to create a master plan for the city and wanted to keep the RBMS property, owned by Red Bank, open for residents to decide its fate at a slow pace. Also, she said, a sewer moratorium would be lifted in 12 to 18 months, leading to a boom in development and population growth that would affect plans for new schools.
The prevailing sentiment was that DuPont is an undesirable and inadequate location for an elementary school, and that DuPont should be consolidated into Hixson Elementary School, the youngest of the four school buildings.
The original recommendation had endorsed consolidating all four schools into one at DuPont.