Staff Photo by Angela Lewis
Dr. Jim Scales speaks about "adequate yearly progress" results during a news conference at Orchard Knob Elementary School on Tuesday. East Lake and Orchard Knob elementary schools have moved into "good standing" after meeting AYP requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Small schools have put a big dent in Hamilton County Schools’ budget.
After years of operating schools with small student enrollments, board members and administrators now must consider whether to close and consolidate some to eliminate part of a projected $20.2 million deficit next year.“Some (schools) might have to be larger and the community will have to come to grips with that,” said Superintendent Jim Scales. “That’s going to be the hard sell.”
With 11 percent fewer students than five years ago, some Hamilton County commissioners have pushed for reducing the number of schools. Most school board members said they are at least willing to consider closing schools, but none wants to see it happen in his district.
“I’m going to do everything I can to keep all the schools open, but I don’t know if that’s a reality,” said newly sworn-in District 4 board member George Ricks. “I’m like everyone else, I’m going to fight for my district.”
School board member Rhonda Thurman said she would put up a fight to save Falling Water Elementary in her district. She said she is concerned that certain board members or schools might receive preferential treatment and not be closed.
“I don’t want anybody to be able to pitch a fit and get their way,” she said. “This isn’t about who has the most clout and the most friends, that’s not how this is going to work.”
At a Hamilton County Board of Education retreat in Nashville last weekend, the school system’s chief financial officer presented the idea of closing 11 schools as a way to shave $6 million from the projected budget shortfall.
Tommy Kranz said closing schools was not a final recommendation, only one of several cost-saving suggestions. Other options include eliminating teaching positions, reducing central office staff, increasing employee health insurance premiums and copayments.
Among the 11 schools identified early last week are two magnet schools, a predominantly black inner-city middle school and an all-white elementary school almost 45 miles from downtown Chattanooga. They are located in seven of the nine school board districts.
All, some or none of the 11 could go, a combination of those or some others could be affected, officials said.
“(The board) may elect to not choose school consolidation,” Mr. Kranz said. “If that’s their choice, I don’t need to create this panic.”
But for some school principals whose schools were named, the panics already has set in.
“There’s been a lot of concern from the Tyner parents because we have a great school,” said Tyner Academy principal Carol Goss. “My approach is that nothing has been determined. It doesn’t change how I operate my school. ... It would be a crime from my viewpoint to let the speculation affect the education we’re giving our kids.”
After a Chattanooga Times Free Press article listed seven schools identified for possible closure, administrators steered clear of the particulars, board Chairman Kenny Smith said.
“I think there’s been so much heat, they weren’t really going to talk much,” said Mr. Smith, who met Thursday afternoon with Dr. Scales and Mr. Kranz.
School names were given to board members only to show how certain options could work and no school was put on a list, Dr. Scales said.
In determining whether consolidation or school closures would work, administrators considered school capacity, building age and condition, geographic location and whether surrounding schools are large enough to accommodate more students, he said.
COST OF SMALL SCHOOLS
About 80 percent of Hamilton County’s schools enroll too few students to cover costs of maintaining, heating, cooling and staffing the school. For elementary schools to “break even,” they must have at least 600 students, said Mr. Kranz. Middle schools and high schools must enroll at least 750.
For every student under that benchmark, it costs the system $1,000 a year, unless additional outside funding from sources such as grants or other government agencies is available, he said.
So administrators would estimate that Hillcrest Elementary, for example, which enrolls 265 students — 335 under the 600 mark — could cost Hamilton County about $333,000 every year.
In total, small schools cost the district about $18.5 million each year, Mr. Kranz said.
“There is a cost for having small schools,” he said. “The challenge we as an administration face and our board faces is: How can we structure our financial model so we can continue what we’re doing while our expenses are continuing to go up?”
Consultants from Tallahassee, Fla.-based Clemons, Rutherford and Associates recently walked through every room of every school in the district to determine how the schools are being used, Mr. Kranz said.
From the report, school officials learned that the average Hamilton County school uses only 75.25 percent of its square footage, he said. If 11 schools were closed, that average would jump to 81.64 percent, and six additional schools would become financially viable, Mr. Kranz said.
Copies of the consultants report were unavailable.
PROS AND CONS
For years, local school officials and administrators supported smaller, neighborhood schools, Mr. Kranz said, which he believes has proven successful.
“Each community makes that decision. From our standpoint, the small schools, educationally, have been very good,” he said.
County Commissioner and former county school board member Fred Skillern points to Falling Water Elementary as a prime example. The school, one of the smaller and older schools in the district, is one of the top performers, he said.
“There were only six schools in the district that got all A’s on their last test, and Falling Water has scored all A’s for the past two years,” he said. “Why would you close one of your best schools?”
But student achievement at other small schools varies. For example, Hillcrest Elementary, with 265 students, and Orchard Knob Middle, with 390, earned all D’s and F’s on the state Report Card.
School size is not the biggest factor determining student success, Mr. Kranz said.
“The success of a building is primarily based on the leaders in that building and the teachers,” he said. “It’s always the people. It’s that interaction.”
County Commissioner Curtis Adams found himself in the middle of a school consolidation debate this year when he pushed for the merger of the aging McBrien Elementary and East Ridge Elementary a quarter mile away into a new $16 million school. The combined school could accommodate more than 800 students.
“New schools are much more efficient and attractive and they can better serve some areas,” he said.
Parental outcry was swift and loud. Some thought a higher pupil-teacher ratio at the larger, new school would translate to a lower-caliber education, while others actually feared for their children’s safety at a larger school.
But in public meetings, Dr. Scales has pointed to research that shows larger schools fare just as well academically as their smaller counterparts.
In Hamilton County, two of the largest elementary schools — Wallace A. Smith with 762 students and Westview with 712 — earned straight A’s in academic achievement last year, according to the Report Card.
Given financial realities, Dr. Scales said, small schools simply are not economically feasible.
“If we don’t get additional funds from the county, and if we don’t get additional funds from the state, we’re going to have to change the model by which we operate in the district,” he said. “Right now, small schools become one of the things we have to take a look at.”
For his part, Mr. Smith said it is likely too late in the year to decide to close schools by next year. Plenty of board work sessions and community meetings have to come first.
“We can’t make a hasty decision,” he said. “We’d have to look at every school in the district and the pros and cons of closing that school or leaving it the way it is — urban, rural, magnet, every school — so we can make an educated decision.”
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...