published Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Hamilton County Commissioners say schools are getting raw deal in land swap

Illustration by Laura McNutt.

CITY OF CHATTANOOGA

Contributes:

• Dogwood Manor Apartments -- $1.7 million

• Total contributed -- $1.7 million

Receives:

• Portion of East Brainerd Elementary site -- $1.4 million

• Cash -- $297,436

• Total received -- $1.7 million


HAMILTON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION

Contributes:

• East Brainerd Elementary site -- $ 2.3 million

• Total contributed -- $2.3 million

Receives:

• Former Poss Homes site -- $1.87 million

• Cash -- $429,466

• Total received -- $2.3 million


CHATTANOOGA HOUSING AUTHORITY

Contributes:

• Former Poss Homes site -- $1.87 million

• Cash -- $726,902

• Total contributed: $2.6 million

Receives:

• Dogwood Manor Apartments -- $1.7 million

• Portion of East Brainerd Elementary site -- $897,436

• Total received -- $2.6 million

Source: Dogwood Manor Request for Proposals, City of Chattanooga

A proposed three-way land swap among the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools and Chattanooga Housing Authority has county commissioners fuming and feeling as if they've been "hoodwinked."

The proposed deal involving cash and three properties -- East Brainerd Elementary School, the old Maurice Poss Homes site and Dogwood Manor Apartments -- appears to short the schools, according to seven of nine county commissioners.

The other two commissioners, Warren Mackey and Greg Beck, are said to have helped broker the deal and did not return calls for comment Monday.

Though School Superintendent Rick Smith submitted a written proposal to CHA and the city March 28, most county commissioners only learned about the swap in the last few days. Although the commission doesn't own any of the property involved, commissioners say they don't like the apparent secrecy surrounding the deal, noting that during a May 2 commission meeting in which the East Brainerd property was discussed, the three-way swap was not mentioned at all.

The commission recently paid $3.4 million for the site of the former David Brainerd private school and gave the land to the school system to use for a new East Brainerd Elementary. Commissioners hoped the sale of the former school site would offset the purchase price of David Brainerd.

"It just really makes you feel like you've been sort of hoodwinked," commission Chairman Larry Henry said.

Other commissioners say the deal makes the commission's rocky relationship with school officials even rougher.

"That's just the kind of crap that builds fences between the commission and the board of education," Commissioner Tim Boyd said.

CHA officials already voted in support of the proposal, and the Chattanooga City Council is slated to vote on the city's portion of the swap tonight.

It's unclear when the school board may vote on the plan and, on Monday morning, many school board members didn't even know the details. On Monday evening, Chairman Mike Evatt sent out a memo outlining details of the proposed land swap.

Smith wasn't available for comment Monday.

Evatt said discussions over the proposal have been in the works for months. The board generally waits on such agreements to be made by administrators before considering them in a formal vote, he said.

"I get tired of people saying, 'You're keeping secrets.' There's no secrets," Evatt said. "We pay our administrators and our superintendents to look at these projects, negotiate possible land purchases and, if they are successful in negotiation, then they bring it to the board or to the commission."

In the current plan, the city proposes to shed Dogwood Manor, a public housing property that it no longer wants. In return, it would gain a portion of the East Brainerd Elementary site and $297,436 in cash.

CHA wants to trade the former Poss Homes site, a vacant 20 acres it's been trying to sell for six years. It will also pay a total of $726,902 to the school system and the city and will receive a portion of the East Brainerd Elementary site from the school system. CHA will get Dogwood Manor.

The schools would dispose of the East Brainerd Elementary property in exchange for $429,466 to help pay for the demolition of the school building. It would take the Poss Homes property and build a new track and football field next to the Howard School for Academics and Technology.

CHA board Chairman Eddie Holmes said Commissioners Beck and Mackey and school officials championed the project to replace Howard's dilapidated track and stadium.

"The Poss property was the driving force," Holmes said. "I think we're getting an excellent deal."

CHA plans eventually to build low-income senior housing on its share of the East Brainerd site, he said.

School officials came to county commissioners on May 2 to seek approval for creating an architect selection committee, the first step toward building a new East Brainerd Elementary. There was no mention of the proposed three-way swap, though documents show it had been in the works for more than a month.

"I'm highly disappointed that, prior to ongoing negotiation with the school board concerning the East Brainerd property, that a covert agreement had been made and not disclosed to the County Commission," said Commissioner Mitch McClure.

At the May 2 meeting, Henry said the property's sale would help offset purchase of the David Brainerd School. Most commissioners were under the impression that East Brainerd's former site would be sold at fair market value, which they thought was about $3 million or more.

In January, the county Department of Education received an appraisal of the nine-acre East Brainerd Elementary site, which valued the property at $2.34 million. Of that, the appraisal recommended 31/2 acres could be used for future senior housing at a $897,436 value while another 5.47 acres, worth $1.4 million, would be for future mixed-use development.

Dan Thornton, Chattanooga's General Services Administration head, said the city intends to continue negotiations for all nine acres.

He noted that, although the CHA is promised 2.8 acres at the rear of the East Brainerd site, "I prefer to have the back side [of the property] and trade another site they can use for affordable housing."

The city intends to sell its portion of the site for development. Thornton said the city wouldn't have agreed to the swap without a piece of the East Brainerd site.

The Board of Education would lease back the school at an undetermined, but likely nominal cost until December 2014, months after the new East Brainerd School is scheduled to be finished, Assistant School Superintendent Gary Waters said.

While school leaders note that informal discussions about buying the Poss Homes property have been ongoing for years, the placement of this specific plan on the City Council's agenda brought the issue to the forefront.

"It's taken all of us by a little bit of surprise that it's moving this rapidly," said Waters, who oversees school facilities.

Staff writers Cliff Hightower and Yolanda Putman contributed to this report.

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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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