Though school enrollment stayed flat this year, the Hamilton County school system needs to get prepared for more growth should Volkswagen announce an expansion of its Enterprise South plant, Superintendent Rick Smith said Wednesday.
County school enrollment this fall held steady at about 42,000 students after several years of growing by several hundred students per year.
"But what happens if we wake up tomorrow or next week or next month and Volkswagen makes an announcement? We've got to be prepared for that," Smith said during his "State of the Schools" address.
Volkswagen's debut in Chattanooga pushed population growth that trickled into the schools, especially those on the county's east side. The company has named its Chattanooga plant as a leading candidate to build a new sport utility vehicle, which would ramp up production and the workforce here. The superintendent said he's optimistic that VW soon will announce an expansion. And that means the schools could find themselves in another crunch for classroom space.
"Just know that we're preparing for if, and I'm going to say when, that happens," he said.
Smith's address on Wednesday to PTA leaders from across the county touched on everything from high-stakes testing to technology to the Common Core State Standards. But parents and the superintendent made sure to spend a good amount of time on school facilities.
"We've got some things we need to address. And we know that," Smith said. "We've got some very old facilities."
Misty Craig, a member of the Hamilton County Council of PTAs, asked Smith about prospects for a new Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, which has been waiting for years for a replacement of its East Brainerd Road building.
"I just want to keep our name out there," she said.
Craig said the building's crumbling state is "beyond frustrating," though parents put up with it because of the quality of education the school provides.
"I don't care if the ceiling caves in. My kids will go to school there because of the amazing teachers," she said.
Katherine Smith, who has a son at Tyner Middle Academy, said that decades-old building needs a complete overhaul. Parents continue to raise funds for the school, though she said school officials don't seem interested in repairing even minor problems like parking lot potholes.
"Why not fix up the schools we have instead of building new ones?" she said.
But Smith said the problems with the school system's finances go far beyond crowded or crumbling facilities. Noting that county elections are coming up in August 2014, Smith said the school system hasn't received increased operating capital from a local tax increase since 2006.
"We have not had the kind of financial support in this community that I think our kids deserve," he said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.