By Andy M. Drury Staff Writer
Hamilton County commissioners are drawing battle lines over an expected decision We dnesday on a $14 million renovation of a South Chattanooga high school.
Commissioners are expected to vote on a contract with Construction and Improvement Specialty Co., which offered the low bid on an extensive renovation project at the Howard School of Academics and Technology.
"I plan to vote for renovating that school down there," Commissioner Larry Henry said. "I’m ready to vote Wednesday." However, several commissioners said Monday they hope to sidestep a vote until county officials can tour the majorityblack school, possibly next week. "I’d like to put the vote off for two weeks so we’ll have a chance to see exactly what’s going to be done on renovations," said Commissioner Curtis Adams, chairman of the county’s education committee.
"I know I’ll be criticized, but I’m trying to help that community," he said. "I want to do something for Howard, but I want to do the right thing."
Mr. Adams’ hopes of delaying a vote angered Commissioner William Cotton, who represents District 4, where the school is located.
He and Hamilton County Board of Education member Debra Matthews are hosting a 6 p.m. public meeting today at the Howard auditorium to review the planned renovations.
"I am very disturbed by Curtis Adams’ position," Mr. Cotton said. "It’s not his district. He should focus his energy into the East Ridge district where he needs schools himself. He’s done stirred up a hornet’s nest." Co mmissioners first debated the future of Howard school last week, when Mr. Adams said he wanted the county to consider replacing it with a new building. The cost for a new high school is $20 million to $22 million, excluding land, school officials said. Costs to rehabilitate Howard eventually could top $17 million, they said. The school will need a new $1.5 million roof before the renovation is complete, officials said.
Mr. Adams has the support of at least two other commissioners for delaying Wednesday’s vote on the renovation contract. Commissioners Bill Hullander and Fred Skillern said they would like to tour the school before committing that much money to the project.
"A t this time I support further study," Mr. Skillern said. "I’ve heard for years that Howard has environmental problems. I would like to know if (the planned renovations are) going to correct these problems. If not, it makes me lean more toward building a new school."
Mr. Hullander said he doesn’t believe a delay "would hurt anything."
"I want to look at the possibility of maybe looking at some other projects," he said. "I know it’s kind of being selfish, but at Ooltewah High School they don’t have a softball field for the girls to play on. I’d be willing to wait and vote on a package deal." Commissioner Charlotte Vandergriff said that, while she would "welcome a tour and a little more conversation," she has not decided how she will vote. "I know that something needs to be done, but I haven’t made up my mind," she said.
Commission Chairman Richard Casavant called the internal debate "unfortunate" and said he will recommend approval of the $14 million in renovations.
Commissioners Henry, Cotton and JoAnne Favors said they also plan to support revamping the school.
"I’m not necessarily opposed to building a new school, but it’s the timing," Ms. Favors said. "That should have been discussed prior to last week."
Ms. Favors said she can’t recall commissioners ever touring any schools before deciding if they would be renovated.
"I don’t think a tour will change any minds," she said. "That’s a bit asinine."
Mr. Cotton said the 1950s-era school is historic and cannot be replicated.
"You could never build another school like it," he said. "There’s too much history behind it to tear it down and move it."
Mr. Adams said he just wants the best for the taxpayers.
"I just don’t feel like renovating that old school is the right thing to do for Howard," he said. "Why not build a nice one?" E-mail Andy M. Drury at firstname.lastname@example.org