Hamilton County Schools await news about money for new buildings

Hamilton County Schools await news about money for new buildings

January 28th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Nicole Wellington teaches first-grade French to students as carpet frays and tears are visible on the floor of her room at the CSLA school on East Brainerd Road.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

BUILDING NEEDS

Here are the six top construction projects for Hamilton County Schools:

• An addition at Wolftever Creek Elementary

• A new building to replace Falling Water Elementary and Ganns Middle Valley Elementary

• An addition at Nolan Elementary

• An addition at Sale Creek Middle-High

• A new building to replace and expand the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts

• A new middle school for the East Hamilton area

Cracks and holes in the walls are evident in the auditorium at CSLA as strings instructor Mary Benno, left, center, tunes a violin for fifth-grader Austin Lee on Monday. Visible structure problems exist in many areas of the dated school on East Brainerd Road.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

It's not just about getting something new and shiny.

For parents and teachers at the sought-after Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, a new school building would mean spreading opportunity to hundreds more students across Hamilton County and opening a high school in the top ranks of its secondary schools.

A replacement CSLA building is one of six projects to make it onto a school board to-do list, whittled from lists of dozens of needed repairs, replacements and additions.

County commissioners say they are ready to fund school construction projects. It's now just a matter of how much money is available, which schools get approval and when.

"It's just however the politics work out," said school board Chairman Mike Evatt.

In the coming weeks, school officials will meet with county leaders to figure out how soon construction can begin. This is an election year for five Board of Education members and all nine county commissioners. And getting a new school built in your backyard is something to show for your time in office when it comes time to campaign.

Most agree that all of the schools on the $136 million to-do list -- either crumbling in old age or packed to the brim -- warrant action. But parents and teachers at Ganns Middle Valley Elementary and CSLA have been waiting on new buildings for years.

Both schools are decades old. Both are in poor condition. Both are too small. And they're the only projects to have a position on school board facility plans for more than 15 years without ever getting completed.

Last year, parents at Ganns held a meeting and produced a video documenting the school's dank basement, soggy ceilings and deteriorating portable classrooms. Parents said conditions were so bad that they were causing health problems such as allergy and asthma flareups.

"This does not look like a school in America," one parent said last year of the conditions at Ganns.

County Commissioner Marty Haynes and school board member Greg Martin, who both represent Ganns Middle Valley, are pushing for its replacement to be the next school project commenced.

Martin said he sees the Ganns project as the most pressing. A new building will replace Ganns and Falling Water Elementary, which is more than a century old. And children at those zoned community schools -- unlike CSLA -- don't actively choose to attend them.

"I think when you look at the needs of Ganns Middle Valley," Martin said, "the need trumps whatever political season it is."

Expanding CSLA

CSLA, a high-performing magnet school, has its own list of physical issues. Windows that don't seal. A shifting foundation and entrances that are not handicapped-accessible. But the National Blue Ribbon school has more than just aesthetics at stake.

Demand outpaces capacity at the K-8 magnet school year after year. And the plan is for a new building to more than double the current enrollment of about 400 and expand the popular program to the high school grades for the first time. That shift, officials argue, would have a domino effect, opening up seats at other magnet schools, where many of CSLA's students go on to high school, and could help relieve overcrowding at other schools in the eastern part of the county.

CSLA Principal Krystal Scarbrough said she's encouraged that CSLA has made the short list, but she hopes to see some action soon.

"I'm disappointed that we aren't moving any quicker, because needs arrive every year," she said. "There will be more schools that need additions, renovations or replacements as time goes by. And I think that CSLA and Ganns Middle Valley are long overdue."

CSLA and the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, both among the county's highest performers, are the only two schools in Hamilton County to use the Paideia teaching philosophy, which is a one-track liberal arts curriculum. That means there are no separate advanced courses, but all students learn side by side. The concept also relies heavily on active discussion, debate and discovery rather than the traditional focus on lecturing.

The school currently has a wait list with more than 100 students for every grade level -- more than twice the school's enrollment. And as their students approach the high school years, the principal says parents are always telling her the same thing: "We wish we could stay."

Finding funding

County government regularly issues bonds to pay for new schools. As old debt is paid off, new loans are taken out to fund new schools. County Mayor Jim Coppinger wouldn't say how much funding was available, but did say the county won't have enough to pay for all $136 million worth of priorities right away.

"It's not realistic to think that all those projects could be done immediately," Coppinger said.

As a magnet school, CSLA draws students from across the county, not just the neighborhood surrounding the school. Some have said its magnet status has left it without a natural advocate on the board or commission.

But County Commissioner Tim Boyd, whose district includes the school, said the project is long overdue. With mounting needs, he'd like the county to put up as much funding as possible this round and get several projects under way. And CSLA should be one of the first to break ground, he said.

Like other county leaders, he wants to keep the county's coveted AAA bond rating. But with some $99 million in reserve funds, Boyd said the county is in solid financial shape.

"We just need to bite the bullet and make it happen," he said. "I'm wanting to float enough bonds to do as much as we can of the $136 million list."

He said his support of CSLA won't help him much in his upcoming campaign like completion of a new zoned community school might. Only about 30 percent of students there come from his district.

"If I got 100 percent of those votes, it wouldn't get me the election," he said. "It's just the right thing to do for the community."

The school board's facilities committee will soon meet with the county's education committee to talk about timing and funding, Evatt said. But that could ignite a longstanding feud between the two bodies.

"When all is said and done, conversations need to take place. It's needed to take place for two years and it hasn't happened," said County Commissioner Warren Mackey, who is chairman of the education committee.

Mackey said he'd like to see the two bodies work together on long-term planning. He thinks the school system is operating in "crisis mode," responding to issues like overcrowding as they appear. With vacant classrooms in some schools and mounting maintenance issues, Mackey questions whether new schools should even be built.

"What would have been ideal is to have been on the front end of those decisions so I could lobby harder and know the arguments they have for giving that list of schools," he said.

Commission Chairman Fred Skillern said the body won't micromanage which projects get done. But he said he also wants to see an explanation -- like enrollment numbers and projected growth -- of why school board members choose to move ahead on certain projects.

"Don't just come to me and say 'this is my first priority,'" Skillern said. "Bring me the figures as to why it's your first priority. Then I'll take a look at it."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.