A matter of math: It's decision day for Hamilton County, CSLA

A matter of math: It's decision day for Hamilton County, CSLA

March 26th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy and Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News


What: Hamilton County Commission meeting

When: 9:30 a.m. today

Where: Room 402, Hamilton County Courthouse

What's at stake: Commissioners will vote on a school building construction plan

POLL: Should the county spend more to include a new building for CSLA?

The Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, located at the intersection of East Brainerd Road and Vance Road, operates in the old Elbert Long school building.

The Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, located...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

UPDATE: The Hamilton County Commission has voted unanimously in favor of Jim Coppinger's proposal. CSLA and East Hamilton Middle School are left off the list.

For $50 million, county officials say taxpayers can afford to fix issues at five zoned neighborhood schools, or replace one magnet school.

Money can go toward schools that house a combined 2,442 students, or one school that currently holds 397.

Total capacity can be increased by 690 over four new or expanded buildings or by 700 at the one.

Those are some of the economic realities commissioners have been mulling as they consider whether to fund a new Ganns Middle Valley Elementary to absorb Falling Water Elementary and expansions at Sale Creek Middle-High and Nolan and Wolftever Creek elementaries -- or replace Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

But some parents say the vote is about more than picking which schools to fund. It's an opportunity for commissioners to change the way they think about funding schools.

And unfazed by nearly a week of CSLA parents and students rallying for a new building, a bloc of commissioners say they are leaning in favor of Mayor Jim Coppinger's recommendation -- to spread the money around.

"I am sympathetic to [CSLA], I'll tell you that. But we've got needs all over Hamilton County. You've got to prioritize somewhere, and I think the recommendation right now is the most feasible," District 7 Commissioner Larry Henry said Tuesday.

Commissioners will vote today on whether to approve or reject Coppinger's recommendation.

District 3 Commissioner Marty Haynes, who made the first motion to approve the four-school proposal, said he wishes the money was there to fund CSLA, too, but it's not. He doesn't want parents to feel pitted against one another for funding.

"I wish we had money to fund all six projects, but we just don't now," Haynes said. "I'd like to see it as a win for all education in Hamilton County. We are improving four schools. I hate to hear 'battle.'"

Henry, Haynes and District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston said they supported the resolution Tuesday. And a majority of commissioners voiced support for the recommendation last week.

But a pair of commissioners say there are other options.

Commissioner Tim Boyd says he thinks there's a way to double the mayor's proposal and find $100 million to include a new CSLA.

"I would like to see us look at every option available to not have to raise taxes, work with the school board, have them find money, have the county find money and do what we have to do to service the debt load and make it happen," Boyd said.

Citing stories he's heard from his granddaughter's teachers and principals about parts of the building falling off, Boyd said every year the building isn't replaced, health risks continue to mount.

"That building is freaking falling down," Boyd said. "It needs to be replaced. God forbid one of those kids get hurt -- or a faculty member -- once the lawyers get done, Hamilton County will have been able to buy three schools."

Isabel Uson works on a project in seventh-grade art class at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

Isabel Uson works on a project in seventh-grade...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

At the very least, Boyd wants commissioners to promise that CSLA is next on its list, by writing a paragraph into the resolution that no other school projects will be funded until money is locked in for the magnet school.

On Monday, District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham said CSLA should move into the old David Brainerd Christian School.

CSLA parents are expected to show up en masse today after spending several days petitioning outside the courthouse. But supporters of the four other school projects will make a showing, too.

In recent days, leaders of Nolan Elementary School have urged parents to petition the commission for their $5 million expansion. Without it, the school fears it will lose its art, music and computer classrooms to cope with anticipated growth.

But Nolan PTA's past president Scottie Summerlin said they're asking parents to fight for all school projects, whether it be the facility issues, or other needs, such as a countywide lack of elementary art teachers and the need for improved student technology.

"We want all our schools to have their needs met," Summerlin said. "And we want the county to do whatever it takes to make that happen. We are just really adamant that we want all of our schools in Hamilton County to be high-quality and safe learning environments."

Dwight Hunter, president of the Hamilton County Council of PTAs, said the county needs to do the right thing and fund all six projects, which would mean including a new East Hamilton middle school as well as CSLA. Because the county's facility needs go far deeper than just this short list.

"These problems are not going to go away. All they're doing is delaying the inevitable," he said. " They really need to step up and figure out a way to increase the funds or create a special fund that will solve these issues."

School board member Rhonda Thurman said she's happy with Coppinger's proposal. She represents the Sale Creek area, which is set to get $12 million under Coppinger's proposal.

She said the CSLA project is just too expensive. It would be one thing if the school was looking for just a replacement building. But the current proposal to more than double its enrollment and expand to the high school grades for the first time is cost prohibitive.

"Do the math," said Thurman, who's long been a critic of magnet schools. "If they get their school, nobody else gets anything."

If there isn't enough money to get CSLA completed this round, school board member Greg Martin said he agrees with Coppinger's list. Martin, who represents Ganns, said that school needs to be done before CSLA.

But he said CSLA needs to be first in line for future construction projects. Martin, whose wife taught at a magnet school, said the county needs to better support the magnet school program as a whole. Magnet schools, where parents voluntarily choose to send their kids, are often treated like the "red-headed stepchildren" of the public school system, he said.

"They deserve more than the leftovers," he said. "And I'm looking forward to the day when the funds are there to do that."

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

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