published Friday, March 19th, 2010

Normal Park zoning debate ends

by Kelli Gauthier
Audio clip

School board meeting

True to form, a Normal Park zoning debate packed the house at Thursday’s school board meeting and fueled a heated debate throughout the bulk of the three-hour meeting.

At stake was whether families living in an area of North Chattanooga the board previously voted to include in the magnet school’s zone, would be allowed to enroll at Normal Park Museum Magnet School next fall.

In the end, the Hamilton County Board of Education voted 6-3 to exclude the neighborhoods of Bell and Spears avenues from the Normal Park zone. Students living in that area will continue attending Red Bank Elementary and Red Bank Middle.

The exception will be 38 families in that area who expressed interest in sending their children to Normal Park.

“This doesn’t solve the community problem. There were a lot of kids who were left out of the loop,” said North Chattanooga resident Mitta Chestnutt, whose children are now free to attend Normal Park.

Although some of her five children now will attend the magnet school because she was one of the parents who requested it, she is upset that her neighborhood will not be included in the Normal Park community in the future.

“The promise was made to bring us back in the school zone,” she said. “It comes down to socioeconomic and racial discrimination.”

Superintendent Jim Scales has said previously that growth in Normal Park’s current zone made it impossible to add any additional students, such as those on Bell and Spears avenues, to the roster.

Also included in the board’s vote was a decision to stop allowing out-of-zone families to pay $5,000 for prekindergarten with the guarantee of a spot at the school for kindergarten.

The families who already have paid for the 2010-11 school year still will be allowed to send their child to pre-k at Normal Park, but they will not be allowed automatic enrollment in the school the following year, the board decided.

Normal Park’s pre-k program will continue as a paid service for those students living in the school’s zone only.

As meeting attendees shifted in their chairs and let out audible groans, board members continued to question the equity both of the zoning changes and the pre-k program.

Board member Rhonda Thurman said she couldn’t believe how the board was willing to spend so much time on what she considered a small number of people.

“It is amazing how we bend over backward for some and not for all. We are so worried about accommodating a certain few,” she said, referencing other schools that had closed, or zones that had been changed over the years.

Vice Chairwoman Linda Mosley said she felt the board had no choice but to allow the pre-paid pre-k families to send their children to Normal Park next year.

“They paid the money in good faith. They paid last May, so that’s the just and right thing to do,” she said.

School board attorney Scott Bennett denied Ms. Thurman’s suggestion that the paid pre-k program is illegal, but he still suggested it is unfair since not everyone can afford to spend $5,000 for pre-k.

“The application of that program has had some inequities. There are people who are in a position to pay for that pre-k program,” he said. “Is it illegal? No. Is it inequitable? Yes.”

Near the end of the meeting, board member Chip Baker said he felt the board had made “some good compromises.”

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Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Call for compromise in Normal Park zoning battle

Article: Normal Park zoning debated

Article: Normal Park zoning proposal questioned

about Kelli Gauthier...

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, ...

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