Students in four schools to benefit from $48 million in construction, but CSLA's wait continues

Students in four schools to benefit from $48 million in construction, but CSLA's wait continues

March 20th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy and Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

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Hamilton County commissioners will vote on the school construction recommendation next week.


This is the list of six schools Superintendent Rick Smith said need to be replaced or expanded. Included are estimated price tags for the projects. Those marked with an * were recommended by Mayor Jim Coppinger.

New East Hamilton Middle School: $40 million

New Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts: $40 million

New Ganns Middle Valley Elementary: $26 million *

Additions to Sale Creek Middle-High: $12 million *

Addition to Nolan Elementary: $5 million *

Addition to Wolftever Creek Elementary: $5 million *



In other business, commissioners voted to:

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

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

• Accept a $26,600 grant increase from the Tennessee Department of Health for a Bioterrorism Preparedness grant.

• Enter a $250,000 contract with Terracon for geoenvironmental testing and inspection at the new East Brainerd Elementary School construction site.

• Approve a payment in lieu of tax (PILOT) agreement with Coca-Cola Bottling Company United.

Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts may top charts for student achievement, but it looks as if a new building for the campus is at best fifth on the county's priority list.

The National Blue Ribbon school is expected to be passed over again next week after waiting at least 25 years for a new building when commissioners vote to build four other school projects proposed by Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

"It's hard to believe they don't want this education for more students." said CSLA parent Jessica Thomas after a meeting Wednesday where a majority of commissioners indicated they would not support funding a $40 million replacement CSLA building.

"We expected to at least be acknowledged a little more," Thomas said. "I mean the first half of the meeting was about CSLA and our achievements. So for us to be slighted like that is so disappointing."

Before the funding discussion, students from CSLA addressed commissioners about the school's academic success and its librarian was recognized for winning a national award.

But Coppinger did not recommend replacing the 65-year-old school -- which reopened as a magnet school in 1992 after being shuttered. Instead, he asked that commissioners fund an estimated $26 million replacement school to combine the even older Ganns Middle Valley and Falling Water elementaries and an estimated $22 million in additions at Sale Creek Middle-High and Nolan and Wolftever Creek elementaries.

Last week, Coppinger was mum about how much the county was ready to spend on schools, saying he wanted to protect the county's buying power. And he was asked by Commission Chairman Fred Skillern to keep his then-three recommendations out of the public dialogue.

But following a week of public outcry and media criticism, Coppinger said Wednesday he wanted to be as open as possible -- after having met with commissioners in private.

"This has been a really emotional process because anytime someone comes in with a list and chooses four somebody is going to be disappointed," Coppinger said. "There was a lot of public discussion from the facilities committee and a joint meeting with the commission and school board. ... This is the process."

But Thomas said "disappointed is not the word for it."

"We are at the point where we really don't know what to do anymore. We really don't."

There are physical needs at the school. But their yearslong crusade, Thomas says, has also been focused on opportunity, spreading the high-performing school's reach to more Hamilton County students. There are more than 1,000 students on CSLA's waiting list and current plans for the replacement school call for more than doubling the magnet school's enrollment and expanding to the high school grades for the first time.

Thomas said she was thankful that Commissioner Tim Boyd has advocated for their school, but without more commissioners backing it, she doesn't see how CSLA will ever be completed.

Boyd acknowledged that Ganns Middle Valley and Falling Water elementaries needed to be replaced, but said CSLA shouldn't be left by the wayside. He said the county should double down and spend $100 million on the whole list of six schools.

"We have been stepped over last time, and I voted for $50 million [in 2011] with the understanding that CSLA would be top priority this time. Now the priories have shifted again," Boyd said.

As commissioners congratulated Coppinger for proposing to spend some $50 million on the four school projects without a tax increase, CSLA parent Jenny Underwood busily penned a message. She held up the note for commissioners: "I will pay the taxes."

By the time the decision was announced by Coppinger and it was clear that CSLA had again been passed over, Underwood was in tears.

"We've been passed over more than any other school," said Underwood, who says she camped out for a month several years ago to get her oldest son admitted to CSLA. "We're forgotten."

Underwood said she has no problem with schools like Sale Creek finally getting fixed up. The conditions there are "deplorable," she said.

"A lot of commissioners try to pit us against each other like it's a giant gladiator ring," she said.

Many CSLA supporters shook their heads at Coppinger's announcement. Some frantically began sending text messages. Others wept.

"They realize that their children won't be able to stay at CSLA" for high school, said Principal Krystal Scarbrough. "It won't be ready in time for their children to enjoy it."

Still, parents at five other schools were pleased.

"I think we are very encouraged after today," said Caroline Rowell, PTA president at Ganns Middle Valley Elementary. "Of course we feel confident that our school board members and our commissioners are not dropping the ball and [are] doing what we put them in office to do."

But Rowell expressed sympathy for parents of students at CSLA.

"For my understanding, this has been an ongoing issue for them. And we have nothing but sympathy," she said. "I do wonder, why have they been passed over so many times."

As far as feeling pitted against other parents in the county, Rowell said that feeling is real, but she tries to keep things in perspective.

"I have a third- and a fifth-grader at Ganns, and neither one of my children will see this new building. This is about the community coming forward. It's not even a self-serving effort," she said.

Christy Turner, who has three children at Sale Creek Middle-High School, said she was also excited that Sale Creek students' education will be more equitable. Currently, middle school students attend classes in portable trailer classrooms. And Turner said the crumbling portables are infested with mold and vermin.

"It's a great school," she said. "We can continue as we are, but I don't think it's fair to the students."

Sale Creek was not originally in the running when Coppinger planned to build only three of the projects.

But Skillern said Wednesday that was because Coppinger and others expected that the project needed a new school.

"We don't need a new school out there, we need an addition. We don't need to spend $20 million, we need to spend $12 million," Skillern said. "Some on the school board had come up with that [project] but nobody talked to [District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman] and nobody asked me."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at or at 423-757-6481.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or at 423-757-6249.

County commissioners also heard from Catherine Cate White, who advocated including the ten commandments and other documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta in a display of historical documents at the County Courthouse.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.