published Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Hamilton County parents’ school rezoning ideas get little traction

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    Concerned parents gather in the gymnasium of Ooltewah High School for a second meeting to discuss the rezoning of Hamilton County School zones.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Several weeks into discussions over a rezoning plan proposed for schools in east Hamilton County, parents fear they’re nearing a deadlock with school administrators.

After parents criticized the initial rezoning proposal, the Hamilton County Board of Education formed a parent committee to study administrators’ plan to combat overcrowded schools.

The matter could go to the school board in less than two weeks for a possible vote, but it’s unclear whether parents will have much influence in shaping the final zoning plan. The result stands to change the lives of hundreds of students for years to come.

And board members say they’re still uncertain on how they’ll come down on the issue.

Ryan Ledford, the parent leading the committee, said the group is growing frustrated that administrators aren’t receptive to their ideas. Instead of letting parents build their own plan, he said, administrators are sticking closely to the original proposal.

“They won’t start from square one for us, so it’s hard to build an idea together,” Ledford said. “We just need to scratch it, start over and showcase what we can bring to the table.”

School Superintendent Rick Smith said he’s not willing to budge on a few suggestions that the parent group has championed, such as delaying the rezoning for a year, adding portable classrooms to East Hamilton Middle/High School or creating an open enrollment policy for schools on the county’s east side.

“We’re still looking for something we feel like we could take to our board and recommend. I can’t feel comfortable recommending the three things they’ve offered,” Smith said.

Smith said he is willing to allow more grandfathering for current students. The original plan would allow all current East Hamilton students to continue through graduation and allow some elementary students to finish at their current schools even after rezoning.

At the urging of parents and board members, Smith said administrators are willing to allow even more elementary students to be grandfathered in. They’re also considering letting fifth-graders zoned for East Hamilton move into that school, even if the rezoning calls for them to move to other schools.

“We’re broadening that quite a bit, more so than we’ve ever done in the past,” Smith said.

Several school board members said they’re not prepared to make a final decision on the rezoning plan. Chairman Mike Evatt said he’d like to see more grandfathering for students and other alternatives included before the plan moves ahead.

Whatever changes are recommended, Evatt said cutting certain neighborhoods out of the rezoning in favor of others won’t help matters.

“We can’t just start saying, ‘Oh, we’ll take you out and put you in,’” he said.

The superintendent would like to see the rezoning plan go before the board on April 19, though it’s unclear whether a decision will be made that night.

“If it’s on the agenda, I’m sure we’re going to have a pretty lengthy discussion,” Evatt said.

Board member Linda Mosley said she understands Smith’s desire to decide quickly so parents have plenty of notice. But she said she’ll move cautiously.

“I just want to be sure that we really have prepared ourselves as well as the families,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll have a chance to review it carefully and thoughtfully before we do vote.”

Board member Chip Baker said he isn’t ready to decide before hearing what administrators and parents have come up with. He said the board might want to hold a work session on the topic, though he noted the rezoning needs to occur soon.

“I really need to hear the discussion before I weigh in on it,” Baker said.

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about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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