published Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Hamilton County school system studies East Hamilton rezoning

The Hamilton County Board of Education should have a plan in place by April outlining how it will rezone schools to combat overcrowding on the county's east side, school board members said.

The board's Facilities Committee met Wednesday to discuss a rezoning of certain schools and to hear about the progress of the under-construction Red Bank Middle School and the upcoming construction of a new Ooltewah Elementary School.

Officials said they want to be as transparent as possible with the rezoning process, which will target schools such as East Hamilton Middle-High School. Built for about 1,650 students and opened in 2009, East Hamilton already houses more than 2,000. Teachers must float between classrooms to have enough space for all classes.

"They are literally at the point where they have no more space to do that," said Schools Superintendent Rick Smith. "We're to a point where we have to make a decision about zoning."

While East Hamilton is a top priority, Smith said rezoning will target several schools. Hunter Middle and Ooltewah Middle could be rezoned because they're both currently under capacity, he said.

Smith said he wants to start talking to affected families in the coming months.

"It's a very emotional, personal issue for people," he said. "We can't keep the public out of the conversation."

Board and Facilities Committee Chairman Mike Evatt agreed, saying discussions must include parental input.

"I don't like parents to be caught off guard. I don't like parents to be the last ones in the loop," he said.

Rezoning is dependent on the pace of new building construction. The 1,000-student Ooltewah Elementary will be completed by July 2013, replacing the much smaller current building. The board also is eyeing a replacement building for East Brainerd Elementary. Board members agreed Wednesday to start talks with county officials about getting that project started.

"The rezoning part of it is going to hinge on what building projects we have ready," Evatt said.

Architects have completed a draft plan for the Ooltewah building, to be built off Ooltewah-Georgetown Road near Interstate 75. Gary Waters, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, said the building will look similar to East Ridge Elementary with four wings of classrooms. The center of the building will house a multipurpose room, kitchen and dining room along with art, science and computer rooms, he said.

The usual 12-month design process has been compressed to five months, Waters said, with a prospective bid date of June.

"This is extremely fast-paced," he said.

Despite uncooperative weather, Waters said construction on the new Red Bank Middle is on schedule. Located behind the current Red Bank High School, the middle school project is also expected to wrap up in the summer of 2013.

Because of recent growth in enrollment, Waters said he wants the board to ask the County Commission to look into the purchase of several new properties for the school district's long-term needs.

"We'll want to be thinking about where we're going next," he said. "The growth in our system has been truly remarkable in the last year."

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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