An emotionally charged crowd at the Howard School of Academics and Technology on Tuesday gave Hamilton County commissioners a clear message: Renovate it, don’t replace it.
"For once, I think the people in this community ought to have the main voice," said alumnus Reuben Lawrence, one of more than 100 supporters of revamping the majority black school. "Every time we get to a starting point, there seems to be a little bump to delay it." Community leaders urged the crowd at Tuesday’s public hearing to attend today’s county commission meeting where commissioners are set to vote on a $14 million renovation contract for the Howard school. Controversy erupted last week when Commissioner Curtis Adams suggested building a new school instead.
A new high school will cost between $20 million and $22 million, while the total renovation work at Howard — a complete makeover of the 1950s-era building including upgraded telephone and communication networks, furniture and a new roof — is expected to top $17 million, officials said.
Mr. Adams said he wants to delay a vote on the Howard contract for two weeks to give commissioners a chance to tour the school before voting on the matter.
"I thought everybody here would be tickled to death with a new school," he said, drawing an uproar from the crowd. "I thought I was talking in favor of Howard High School when I was talking about building a new school."
Tuesday’s public meeting was called by Board of Education member Debra Matthews and County Commissioner William Cotton. Both represent the district where the school is located.
Ms. Matthews told Mr. Adams she opposes any delay on the renovation vote.
"Will two weeks make that much difference?" Mr. Adams asked.
Ms. Matthews fired back, "It will keep me tensed up for two weeks, and I don’t want to be tense."
The school board approved in December the renovation project, part of a 5-year-old facilities plan for building and renovating schools across the county.
Chattanooga police officer Anthony Chapman questioned Mr. Adams about where a new school might be built.
"A l o t of things go into this decision of building a new school," said Mr. Chapman, the school’s resource officer. "If you’re not going to save the school, what will you do as an alternative?"
Several board members and commissioners agree that finding an appropriate site for a new school near the current Howard school on South Market Street could prove challenging.
Commission Chairman Richard Casavant, who supports renovating the school, said earlier Tuesday that land costs also must be weighed.
"That’s frightening," he said. "I don’t know the answer to that."
Commissioner Larry Henry estimated the property for a new school could cost between $5 million and $6 million.
"From the standpoint of taxpayers, I don’t see that as practical at all," he said, pledging to vote for the renovation. "This is more than bricks and mortar. This has been home to generations."
Becky Browder, the county’s real property manager, said if the school board and county agree to build a new school, her office likely would be called to locate potential sites.
"We would look at the parameters of the area the school would serve," she said. "We would go through a process, looking at contingent property, environmental issues, street access and making sure it’s fairly level."
Ms. Browder said finding the nearly 40 acres it would require to build a new high school in the same vicinity as Howard wouldn’t be easy.
"I don’t think it’s impossible, but it would be difficult," she said. "It would take several months, but probably not a year." The renovation versus rebuilding decision will play heavily into when the Howard project is completed, said Gary Waters, assistant superintendent of auxiliary services.
"It could take two and a half years for a new high school," not including time spent to find the land, he said. But if officials choose the renovation route, work would start within 30 days and would be complete in 18 to 24 months.
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