published Monday, March 24th, 2014

CSLA supporters mass at the Hamilton County Courthouse with a message: 'It's our turn'

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    Brothers, Calen Finch, 10, and Kieram Finch, 6, from left, hold up signs Sunday at the Hamilton County Courthouse to advocate getting funds from the county commission for a new building for the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

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    Dana Cleckler, Evelyn Cleckler, 10, Emory Brandon, 4, and Elizabeth Cleckler, 7, from left, make signs on the lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse to protest the lack of funding CSLA has received from the county.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

Is this CSLA's year? Should it get money for a new building?

Distraught supporters of Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts who feel they have no representatives on the county commission have set up camp to advocate on their own behalf.


As the sun set on downtown Chattanooga Sunday, dozens of CSLA parents, students and supporters established headquarters on the front lawn of the county courthouse to protest Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's school building proposal that, if approved Wednesday, will omit the $40 million needed to construct a new building for CSLA.

"We don't have a voice inside that courthouse," said Dana Cleckler, who has three children at CSLA. "We're not a big enough entity in any one district to make noise and threaten a candidacy."

The parents acknowledged commissioner Tim Boyd as an ally, but they're at a loss for how to persuade other officials on the immediate needs at their National Blue Ribbon School at 6579 East Brainerd Road.

Children held signs supporting CSLA and shouted and waved to cars as they passed by.

By 7:30 the demonstrators had been told to move to the sidewalk until they could obtain a permit today, but they insisted they would stay the night.

The demonstration is less about a physical location than it is a public display of displeasure over the treatment their school has received. CSLA has been asking for a new school for more than 25 years and has had its hopes raised that it would happen time after time.

The parents plan to remain outside the courthouse even while their children are in school tomorrow and vow to remain at the courthouse until Wednesday's Hamilton County Commission meeting.

That's when the commission will vote on Coppinger's proposal to spend $48 million on other building projects selected from a list of work deemed necessary by schools Superintendent Rick Smith.

Four other school building projects -- benefiting students from five schools -- would receive funding totaling $48 million under Coppinger's proposal.

Elizabeth Kimball, another CSLA mother, camped out just to get her children into the school. To her, participating in the demonstration beginning Sunday night was an easy decision. In fact, she left her kids at home to rest up for school on Monday and came by herself.

"We've been promised and they keep going back on their promises," Kimball said. "At what point are they going to just give the money up or say to us, 'this is it. This is exactly how long you have to wait.'"

Instead, they just keep saying "you can have the money. Don't give up, don't give up."

Meanwhile, the condition of the present building just gets worse.

"Our school is falling down and my son has asthma and he has to go into a portable that has mildew because there was a leak," Kimball said. "They try to fix it but they're just putting band-aids on the problem."

This isn't the first time that a group has taken to the courthouse lawn to make its point.

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    Kelly Kroll, left, and Elizabeth Kimball hold up signs Sunday at the Hamilton County Courthouse to advocate for a new school building for CSLA.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

The political group Occupy Chattanooga set up camp on the county courthouse lawn in November 2011 and remained until March 2012 when the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office forced the group to relocate.

An ordinance passed on Jan. 4, 2012, by the county commission in the midst of that ordeal established that use on or about the exterior of county buildings should be coordinated through the county mayor's office with notification furnished to the county commission and the sheriff's department.

A spokesman from Coppinger's office did not immediately return calls Sunday.

The CSLA group said they do not want to be a nuisance or provide problems to officials. They reviewed the ordinance and attempted to comply with the specifics of it after arriving Sunday night. This, Kimball said, is about making a stand.

"It's our turn," Kimball said. "We've been patient, we've been respectful, we've been supportive. We support other schools. But it's our turn. What's right is right."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at 423-757-6731.

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