Cleveland schools face funding challenge for new facility

Cleveland schools face funding challenge for new facility

September 8th, 2012 by Paul Leach in Local Regional News

Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Overcrowding is driving the need for a new elementary school on the northern side of Cleveland, according to education officials who are wrestling with how to fund such a project.

The Cleveland City School Board met at Mayfield Elementary School on Thursday to discuss the problem of student overpopulation, which challenges the whole city school system.

"We have no empty spaces at any of our schools," said Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools.

Enrollment for city schools has been growing by an average of 85 students a year for the last eight years, said Jeff Elliot, attendance supervisor for the city system.

The school system, which already enrolls 300 more students beyond planned capacity, is projected to grow by another 200 to 300 students in a few years, said Elliot.

"That's another school," said school board member Dawn Robinson.

Mayfield Elementary faces one of the toughest challenges with overcrowding, education officials said.

Designed to accommodate 450 students, the school currently enrolls 556, Ringstaff said. The school reached capacity three years ago and has increased enrollment by 25 percent since then, he said.

The overcrowding problem has impacted specialty areas for the entire school system, said Ringstaff, with rooms previously dedicated to music, arts and tutoring have been repurposed as general classroom areas.

For Mayfield Elementary, specialty classes are conducted in the auditorium, cafeteria or even the hallway, said Principal Dee Dee Finison. Art class is hauled from classroom to classroom on a cart.

"The teachers are very flexible and the kids have been great," said Finison. "You don't know what you can do until you have to do without."

Despite the need for a new school space, education officials said they have very little money to put towards a capital project that costs between $12 million and $15 million.

The city schools' $38 million budget offers limited leeway for capital funding, said Brenda Carson, business manager for the system.

About 88 percent of the budget goes to faculty and personnel salaries and other necessities, and those allocations are driven by governmental educational requirements, said Carson. Less than 12 percent of the budget -- $4.4 million -- could be used legally with any flexibility, she said, however, even that's debatable since those funds now go towards operating bus services and maintenance.

Considering that the school system already pays $110,000 in annual debt service on $1.7 million in borrowed funding, Carson said she didn't see how it could afford to borrow enough money to build a new school.

Cleveland City School officials said they plan to review the situation with the Cleveland City Council and the Bradley County Commission in the near future, said Ringstaff.