Hamilton County Commission, school board heat up debate over construction priorities

Hamilton County Commission, school board heat up debate over construction priorities

March 15th, 2017 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Joe Graham

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Members Tiffanie Robinson, left, and Kathy Lennon, both elected last August, talk during a September meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Members Tiffanie Robinson, left, and Kathy Lennon, both...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Sabrena Smedley

Sabrena Smedley

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Board member Rhonda Thurman speaks during the meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education on Monday, March 7, 2016, in Chattanooga.

Board member Rhonda Thurman speaks during the meeting...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Commissioner Tim Boyd

Commissioner Tim Boyd

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Jim Coppinger

Jim Coppinger

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Karitsa Mosley Jones

Karitsa Mosley Jones

Photo by Facebook

Dr. Kirk Kelly attends the meeting Thursday, September 15, 2016 at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

Dr. Kirk Kelly attends the meeting Thursday, September...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Greg Martin

Greg Martin

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Joe Wingate

Joe Wingate

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

David Testerman

David Testerman

Photo by Clark Bowen

The Hamilton County Commission and school board spent more than two hours talking at the same table Tuesday night, but little was decided.

The meeting was planned so both bodies could develop strategies to address the school district's facilities and funding needs, but most of the time was spent debating priorities and who should be footing the maintenance bill.

Commissioner Joe Graham said sometimes it takes heated discussions to get things done.

"Get your blood pressure up," he said. "Let's get this out. Let's get going."

But school board member Tiffanie Robinson said both bodies need to be productive and work collaboratively to develop a long-term strategic plan.

"I'm here for four years and I'm not going to keep having these discussions," she said.

New school construction was the first item up for debate Tuesday, with Commissioner Sabrena Smedley advocating for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, while noting that the county doesn't have $64 million to build a new school.

"Is there a school that is under capacity where the students of CSLA could be moved to?" she asked.

Hamilton County Schools officials said there isn't much extra capacity in schools, and that rezoning is just a temporary fix.

School board member Rhonda Thurman argued that a new building for magnet schools like CSLA should not be a priority, noting that the district previously told the commission that a new Harrison Elementary was its top priority. She said zoned schools at the north end of the county must be a priority because of overcrowding and anticipated growth.

Commissioner Tim Boyd said a new CSLA would serve up to 1,600 students, up from about 400 now, and could help with the overcrowding in schools.

But school board member Joe Wingate said that isn't true, because CSLA is a magnet that draws the names of kids to attend from across the county. Graham agreed CSLA should not be a priority.

Smedley said one of the reasons the county cannot build new schools right now is because it also has to consider spending more than $100 million on a new jail.

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones argued that the county should not prioritize jails over schools and that it's a concern as a taxpayer that more money is being spent to house inmates each year than to educate students.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said jail and school construction should not be lumped together because the county is tasked with the responsibility of funding both. He added that the county has also had to make significant cuts over the years and does not receive financial support for schools and the jail from the municipalities.

Thurman asked Coppinger when new bond money would become available for school construction. Coppinger did not give a straight answer.

Earlier in the meeting, Coppinger said he doesn't want to raise taxes, "but, how long can you stretch that before it happens?" he asked.

Mosley Jones noted its been 12 years since the county has had a tax increase for schools, saying if the property tax rate isn't increased, maybe there could be an additional vehicle registration tax.

"We can look at several things," she said. " We have to figure out a better way."

School board member David Testerman agreed, saying the district desperately needs more funding.

Wingate said the school district has cut millions out of its budget since 2010, but wants to continue looking for where additional cuts can be made.

"The board is very committed to taking a hard look at this budget," he said.

Graham said the district hasn't really made cuts because it receives more funding each year.

"It's not really cuts, you make changes to your budget," he said.

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said Hamilton County received the fourth-lowest percentage of funding from the state this year because of the Basic Education Program, which is the state's funding formula. Hamilton County receives one of the lowest percentages of funding for its size because of the county's ability to fund schools, according to the state's formula.

Coppinger said he is proud of the county, because it provides about 50 percent of the school district's funding, allowing the county to spend more per student than many school districts across the state.

The topic of capital maintenance was also discussed at length during the meeting. The school system has more than $200 million in deferred maintenance, including repairs that are urgently needed.

Commissioner Greg Martin said repairing roofs should be a priority, because if they are neglected, more serious problems arise. He suggested the school district use the estimated $3.8 million it will receive from the sale of the old East Brainerd Elementary property, along with the $750,000 the commission has available in bond funds, to repair roofs.

Robinson said she isn't sure if any strings are attached with Martin's proposal, but agreed it could be a good use of the money.

But Kelly said the central office has a different idea for the funds, and wants to use them to repair athletic facilities across the county and to pay for some curriculum needs.

Graham said he isn't sure the county needs to be funding maintenance projects, suggesting the school board take at least $26 million from the nearly $40 million in the undesignated fund balance to take care of the most urgent projects.

Christie Jordan, assistant superintendent of finance for the school district, said it's extremely risky. The school system could only survive about five weeks on $40 million, and in the fall relies on money from the fund balance to make payroll before it receives county and some federal funding later in the year.

Years ago, the school system had to borrow money from the county to cover costs, Jordan said, and the interest on that cost the district. Jordan added that in recent years, when the district has received a surplus in funds it has used them on capital projects.

Smedley said she hopes that a strategic plan will be developed to address the district's maintenance needs. She also was open to planning another meeting for the two bodies to come back together to try to find solutions.

"I'm an action person," she said. " I didn't want to sit here and get a lot of rhetoric this evening, but get results."

The school board will continue budget discussions during a finance committee meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.


Loading...