By Andy M. Drury Staff Writer
Supporters of a southside Chattanooga high school cheered when the Hamilton County Commission approved a $14 million renovation contract Wednesday, closing the door on talk of rebuilding the school at another location.
The 5-3 vote drew applause and a standing ovation from the students, alumni and community leaders with ties to the Howard School of Academics and Technology who packed the commission room and spilled out onto the fourth-floor landing. School officials estimated between 150 and 200 students marched from Howard to the Hamilton County Courthouse for the meeting. "I think we proved a point," 17-year-old Howard junior Lakesha Franklin said. "They saw where we were coming from. We wanted to keep the history of our school and didn’t want to see it rebuilt somewhere else."
Commissioners Richard Casavant, William Cotton, JoAnne Favors, Larry Henry and Charlotte Vandergriff voted for the renovation contract with Construction and Improvement Specialty Co. Commissioners Curtis Adams, Bill Hullander and Fred Skillern opposed it.
Later in the meeting, a call for a new vote ended with the commission unanimously endorsing the renovation plans.
"It took a lot of soul-searching, but I think we did the right thing," Ms. Favors said. "Howard is more than a school. It’s a part of the social fabric of this community."
Last Thursday, Mr. Adams suggested the county consider rebuilding Howard on another site. School officials said a new high school costs between $20 million and $22 million, while the Howard upgrades are expected to exceed $17 million once commissioners approve funding for a new roof. Mr. Adams was unable to gather enough support to delay a vote on the renovations for two weeks to give commissioners time to tour the school and review renovation costs. The costs were nearly $2.5 million more than the money on hand for the work.
"If we had gone with a new school, I think in years from now, the student body at Howard High School would be thanking me," Mr. Adams said.
At one point during the meeting, Mr. Adams said he was "outnumbered and outgunned."
Ms. Vandergriff provided the swing vote on the issue that divided commissioners and led to a Tuesday night community meeting at the school. Her vote in favor of the renovations avoided a tie that would have defeated the contract. After Ms. Vandergriff cast her vote, the crowd stood up, cheering and clapping.
"I’ve thought about this almost constantly since last week," Ms. Vandergriff said. "I didn’t make up my mind until some point during this meeting. I’m very conscientious about taxpayers’ dollars, but I just had this strong, overwhelming feeling this was the best thing to do."
Among the Howard alumni attending Wednesday’s meeting were Irvin Overton, a senior executive at Erlanger hospital; Howard Alumni Association president Napoleon Williams; and Chattanooga City Councilmen Yusuf Hakeem and Leamon Pierce.
"We all have a deep feeling for it," Mr. Overton said. "I really don’t believe the taxpayers of Hamilton County can afford a brand-new facility at this time."
Debra Matthews, a Hamilton County Board of Education member who helped Commissioner William Cotton organize Tuesday’s community meeting at the school, said she was never worried about the vote.
"I am just proud right now," she said. "God has never failed me yet. They could not have spent taxpayers’ dollars any better than on the renovations at Howard."
The school renovations will include new plumbing, heating and electrical systems, as well as a new gymnasium and kitchen and upgrades to the computer and chemistry labs and media center, said Gary Waters, assistant superintendent of auxiliary services. A leaking roof and temperature control in classrooms are among the worst problems at the school, officials said. The school was built in 1954 and has not undergone major upgrades since then.
Jenise Hawkins, a Howard junior who marched with her classmates to the courthouse, said the school issue inspired her to attend the commission meeting.
"We had to do something," she said. "I wanted to show my support. It’s important for all the people coming after me and all the people before me."
E-mail Andy M. Drury at email@example.com