Hamilton County can afford only 3 new school projects, says Coppinger

Hamilton County can afford only 3 new school projects, says Coppinger

March 13th, 2014 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments on a portion of his budget to county commissioners in this file photo.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments on a...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Schools wish list

This is the list of six schools Superintendent Rick Smith said need to be replaced or expanded. Included are estimated price tags given during a January facilities meeting.

* New East Hamilton Middle School - $40 million

* New Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts - $40 million

* New Ganns Middle Valley Elementary - $27 million

* Additions to Sale Creek Middle-High - $20 million

* Addition to Nolan Elementary - $5 million

* Addition to Wolftever Creek Elementary - $4 million



In other business during an agenda session Wednesday commissioners:

* Considered a $48,000 settlement with the family of Jason Matthew Logan, who died while in custody at the Hamilton County Jail.

* Considered a $26,821 bid from Southeast Floors to replace carpet in the district attorney's office.

* Mulled accepting a $26,600 grant increase from the Tennessee Department of Health for a Bioterrorism Preparedness grant.

* Discussed a resolution to enter a $250,000 contract with Terracon for geoenvironmental testing and inspection at the new East Brainerd Elementary School construction site.

* Heard a proposal for a payment in lieu of tax (PILOT) agreement with Coca-Cola Bottling Company United.

Hamilton County has enough money to complete three of six proposed new school projects, but Mayor Jim Coppinger won't say how much the county has to work with or what three schools should be built.

Instead, at the request of commission Chairman Fred Skillern, Coppinger will meet with commissioners privately to discuss the projects -- outside of public view.

School Superintendent Rick Smith officially presented the six projects, totaling about $136 million in facility construction needs, to commissioners on Wednesday.

The projects include an elementary school to replace Ganns Middle Valley Elementary and Falling Water Elementary; a replacement and expansion of Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts; additions to Sale Creek Middle-High and Nolan and Wolftever Creek elementaries; and a new middle school in the East Hamilton area.

Wednesday was only a formality. The same projects were discussed in a school facilities meeting in January.

Coppinger told Skillern he was prepared to share the three projects he recommended, but Skillern told him to meet with commissioners individually in private.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Coppinger said the only reason he didn't make a recommendation was because he was asked not to.

"Obviously, we will get together on this," he said. "They weren't ready to hear that today, because the chairman did request that I meet individually."

Coppinger hasn't said how much the county can afford to spend on new schools because he doesn't have a hard figure yet -- and he's trying to save taxpayer money.

These projects still have to be bid, and he doesn't want to tip the county's hand.

"If you disclose the amount of money it has the potential to drive the cost up, if people think there is a designated amount of money to use," Coppinger said.

When the projects are approved, Coppinger said the county would finance them with a portion of its $90 million line of credit, then when the debt reached a "certain millions of dollars" the county would go to the market for bonds.

Skillern said he had only one reason to suggest that Coppinger meet with commissioners individually.

"I didn't want to sit there all day," Skillern said. "We'd still be there and there wouldn't be nothing settled. [Coppinger] didn't even have the figures ... Why have discussion without figures?"

But Commissioner Tim Boyd said there's no need for all the secrecy.

"Here we are talking about funding schools and the only information we've got is what's been written in the paper," Boyd said. "Why does it need to be private? Why do these meetings need to be private? It's taxpayers' money. It's parents and grandparents -- it's kids. Everybody in this community needs to be a part of this discussion. They deserve to know what's going on," Boyd said.

He said there's no secret he wants to see CSLA get a new building -- which is estimated to cost about $40 million. But he knows a new Ganns Middle Valley Elementary is long overdue as well. That project is expected to cost $27 million.

Calling school funding a "political football" that no one wants to catch, Boyd said things would be different if there was a timeline for building schools.

"We need a comprehensive plan of when these [projects] are going to be funded and the priority for when they are funded. And those plans need to be put out there in public," Boyd said.

Coppinger said that's what is happening -- it's just not there yet. And all the commissioners have to decide now is which three they want to build.

"It's our responsibility to build schools. We will do that. This is phase one of those projects," he said. "The superintendent -- in public -- said these are the six projects that need to be completed.

"It's easy to be on the other side saying 'Do it, do it, do it,' but from our end we have to do things that protect the taxpayers and our credit rating," he said.

"I don't know how much more transparent you can be."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.