Hamilton County Commission OKs money for one new school; CSLA, East Hamilton will have to wait

Hamilton County Commission OKs money for one new school; CSLA, East Hamilton will have to wait

March 27th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy and Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Sue Luse, right, and Jenny Underwood hug Wednesday after hearing that the Hamilton County Commission plans to pass school construction funding that will not include Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts during a commission meeting.

Sue Luse, right, and Jenny Underwood hug Wednesday...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.


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 asterisk were recommended by Mayor Jim Coppinger and approved for funding by the Hamilton County Commission.

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 *

Parents at Ganns Middle Valley Elementary, Sale Creek Middle-High, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts and others have been lobbying for years for new or expanded schools.

Education officials invested months coming up with a short list of projects to recommend for funding. And this week, parents and students at CSLA spent days outside the Hamilton County Courthouse petitioning for their school to finally get funded.

But all was resolved in 14 minutes.

Two weeks after schools Superintendent Rick Smith gave commissioners a six-item list of school projects, Hamilton County commissioners unanimously agreed to go with Mayor Jim Coppinger's recommendation to spend $48 million to fund four of them.

That means a new Ganns will absorb Falling Water Elementary and additions will be made at Sale Creek Middle-High and Wolftever and Nolan elementaries.

The projects will increase systemwide capacity by 690 students and improve conditions for 2,442 pupils.

CSLA and East Hamilton Middle School will have to wait.

"We did what we could with the amount of money we had available. Lord only knows, if we had $50 million [more] I would have made a different decision, and chose different combinations," commission Chairman Fred Skillern said.

But the vote Wednesday still didn't cost a dime. It only gave the approval to find architects for the projects.

Wednesday capped a drama that started unfolding on March 12, when Smith gave commissioners the unranked list of projects.

Commissioners then said they didn't have enough details about costs and classroom space to make a decision, and Skillern asked Coppinger to meet with commissioners one-on-one to share details about how much money the county had to work with and what projects he suggested.

The private meetings brought ire from some commissioners and the public, and the following week's public meeting spurred disappointment from CSLA parents.

Skillern said the next time commissioners decide on school funding, he hopes things go more smoothly.

"I think it was very vaguely put to the mayor this year. Previously, the school system has told us exactly what their needs were. The school system needs to give us hard facts about what the need is for their budget -- for maintenance or a new school," Skillern said. "We need a lot faster communication from the school system through the mayor to us."

He said that includes a ranked list of projects -- with estimated prices.

"That's the way it's always been done in the past," he said.

But school board member David Testerman said the board couldn't prioritize the list of needed projects, because Coppinger never disclosed how much county money was available until after he revealed his recommendations on March 19.

Coppinger said at the time that the figures were not available.

Testerman said the county and school board need to start planning now on how and when needed projects like CSLA can get completed.

"That discussion needs to start now for the next phase," he said. "We don't need to play this guessing game."

Months of bids, architectural drawings and more lie ahead before the schools that did receive funding begin to see any tangible sign that improvements are on the way.

For Sale Creek Middle-High, Wednesday's commission vote means kids one day won't have to share lockers. They won't have to take a class in the girls locker room. And no longer will the middle schoolers be stuck in crumbling portable classrooms behind the building.

"We need this bad. The portable buildings are falling down," said parent Jonathan Howard. "The commission and school board did a good thing here."

For Ganns Middle Valley Elementary School, the promise of a new building means kids won't have to bring inhalers to school. The mold and mildew parents say has infested the school will go along with the 77-year-old building when it is demolished. And the more than 200 students learning in portables will be in regular brick-and-mortar classrooms.

"Finally," said parent Amy Lovitt. "That's all I have to say."

Ganns parents are "thrilled and thankful," parent Jill Riley said.

Riley said the four school projects approved will affect more than 2,000 students and help relieve problems at five schools.

"It's a good day," she said.

For CSLA, parents said, the fight goes on.

"This is just the beginning," said Greg Laudeman.

He said the battle over facility funding points to bigger problems with public school funding and vision. Laudeman says the problems at Ganns and Sale Creek should have been addressed years ago.

"The department of education has no vision, no strategy of how we're going to create the next generation work force," he said. "They're totally in reactive mode, patching things up."

Laudeman runs a talent and technology-based economic development company. He says companies looking to relocate are most interested in moving to places where they can find qualified workers. And schools like CSLA, a nationally recognized magnet school, help to do that.

"What the county commission essentially just did was tell businesses not to invest here, because we're not going to invest in what's most important to you," he said.

CSLA parent Jessica Thomas told commissioners that Ganns Middle Valley and Falling Water elementaries had been waiting a long time. And she's still hopeful that CSLA eventually will get funding.

"One of our goals this past week was to open up the lines of communication. We'd like to continue that," she said. "Moving forward, we want to have these conversations."

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

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