Chattanooga: Close two schools, cut jobs to balance budget, administrators say

Chattanooga: Close two schools, cut jobs to balance budget, administrators say

February 18th, 2009 by Kelli Gauthier in Local Regional News

Public school administrators want to close 21st Century Academy and Howard Middle School as part of a "Band-Aid" approach to balancing the system's budget, they said Tuesday.

Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz also proposed cutting 105 instructional positions and 25 assistant principals to cobble together a balanced budget and eliminate the projected $20 million deficit.

Add that savings to higher-than-expected property tax revenues, a $7.5 million reduction in projected expenses, $2 million in central office cuts, and the shortfall shrinks to $678,580, Mr. Kranz said at Tuesday's school board Finance Committee meeting.

"What we have done tonight is put a Band-Aid on things," he said. "It doesn't fix the problem."

Mr. Kranz said administrators would continue negotiating with the Hamilton County Education Association about potential changes to employees' health insurance that also might save the system money. Another variable is the recently approved economic stimulus package that could provide some budgetary relief from the federal government.

Staff Photo by John Rawlston Tommy Kranz, left, Chief Financial Officer for the Hamilton County Department of Education and Hamilton County School Superintendant Jim Scales present their budget reccomendations to the Finance Committee of the Hamilton County School Board on Tuesday night.

Staff Photo by John Rawlston Tommy Kranz, left, Chief...

The two possible school closings received an emotional reaction from board of education and citizen advisory panel members, prompting committee chairwoman Linda Mosley to quiet the capacity crowd several times.

Eddie Holmes and Irvin Overton argued that by closing Howard Middle, a predominantly black school with 242 students, administrators seemed to be favoring equally underutilized schools in white communities, such as Lookout Mountain Elementary, which serves fewer than 200 students.

"We're willing to deal with some schools, but not others," Mr. Overton said. "Seems to be what usually happens; the knife swings hard in the African American community."

But Howard Middle, which was built originally for elementary students, is in "deplorable" condition, system Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales said, so moving those students to Orchard Knob and Dalewood middle schools as well as East Lake Academy actually will serve them better.

Orchard Knob, where most of the students would be rezoned, is in need of some cosmetic renovations that could be accomplished with the community's help, Dr. Scales said.

"The youngsters at Howard Middle deserve better," he said. "We did (a community renovation) at Normal Park, and Orchard Knob isn't in nearly the bad condition that Chattanooga Middle was."

With Howard Middle empty, Mr. Kranz said the district would move several operations, including its satellite office on W. 40th Street, into the former school and either sell or donate the unused buildings for a projected annual savings of $135,000.

Closing 21st Century, located on Brainerd Road, prompted less discussion because the magnet school serves students from all nine districts and is "not a community school," board member Rhonda Thurman said.

Next year the 500 students either would attend their zoned school or be given preference at Tyner Middle Academy and Tyner Academy. The majority of 21st Century's students are zoned for Brainerd High, Howard, Dalewood and Orchard Knob middle schools and Woodmore Elementary.

Dr. Scales said Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey had not yet told schools officials whether the county could spend another $5 million to build an East Ridge Elementary School large enough to combine with nearby McBrien Elementary. The County Commission in 2006 pledged $16 million to replace East Ridge.

Phase two of the facilities plan would affect seven schools, Mr. Kranz said. The two proposed closings were the only buildings that realistically could be closed by next school year, he said.

School board Chairman Kenny Smith, who represents East Ridge, said he felt it was too late in the year to consider closing or combining any schools for next year.

"I don't know that we can effectively do it this quick," he said, citing the need for community meetings and public input before decisions were made.

Some cuts, including closing the two schools, could be put off for a year, Mr. Kranz said, but it would take the following year's projected budget deficit from $12 million to $16.5 million.

"So the cost of not acting would be more detrimental than making these hard decisions?" board member Jeffrey Wilson asked.

"Maybe," Mr. Kranz answered. "I don't know that there's a right decision."

The budget-balancing proposal, which doesn't change the district's spending model to the degree Mr. Kranz said he would like, does not include employee salary raises, new textbooks to address next year's changing standards or a shortfall in preventive and capital maintenance.

Changing the way the system operates so that yearly expenses don't outpace revenues simply will take more time, Mr. Kranz said.