Hamilton County won't sell or transfer school buildings to Signal Mountain if it splits from district

Hamilton County won't sell or transfer school buildings to Signal Mountain if it splits from district

November 17th, 2017 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

The Hamilton County Department of Education building is shown in this file photo.

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Hamilton County school board members have pledged not to sell or transfer ownership of Signal Mountain's school buildings if the community opts to break away and form its own school system.

The school board voted 7-1 Thursday night to approve a resolution, which was added to the board's agenda in an amendment at the beginning of the meeting, encouraging Signal Mountain to remain a part of the district, but if it does form its own municipal school system, Hamilton County Schools will not sell or transfer ownership of the three school buildings located on the mountain.

That is because Hamilton County would still have the responsibility to educate the students who live in unincorporated Hamilton County and on Walden's Ridge. The district has taken that stance before — once earlier this year in an email exchange between school board attorney Scott Bennett and the town of Signal Mountain's attorney, and then again during a panel discussion with county officials.

During a workshop meeting before Thursday's vote, board members discussed the resolution and their position on the matter.

"Our communities have the right to determine what happens to their community," school board member David Testerman said. "Signal Mountain has the right, by law, to change their charter" to form a municipal school district.

Testerman said he thinks the town should hold a referendum before the board takes an official stance.

"Right now, it's too early; we need to stay out of this," he said.

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Board member Karitsa Jones said she is concerned about the people who live on or near the mountain but are not residents of the town of Signal Mountain. Other board members agreed.

"They're kind of waiting in the wings, too, like, 'If the town of Signal does this, what does this look like for us?'" Jones said. "They don't know what's going to happen to them."

She also said she didn't like the way the committee conducted itself.

"[The committee] was feeding them false information, and the people couldn't ask questions," she said. "You should be able to have that conversation with [the community], and nobody is answering these people."

Also discussed at the board meeting was the process by which architects are hired for the district's facility building plan. The $125 million plan to build, merge and renovate schools was unanimously approved by the board and county commission, though no public discussion had been held before the plan was presented for a vote at last month's board meeting.

Justin Witt, director of maintenance and operations, said the district publicly advertises the need for architects, and a review committee is formed to go through proposals. The committee is made up of one board member and one county commissioner from the district, the director of maintenance and facilities, the district's engineer, the director of public works and one member of the public.

That committee then presents three final candidates to the county mayor and schools' superintendent, who make the final recommendation to the school board and county commission. Witt said he hopes to have an architect for each of the five projects in place by February. School Superintendent Bryan Johnson confirmed after the meeting that five separate committees must be formed in order to contract the five architects.

"Looking back at our process, I think it's a very structured process, I think it's a very open process, and I think it's a very thorough process," he said. "With that many people looking and reviewing proposals, I think we end up with some very talented architects."

Testerman, however, said he did not like the process, and he thought it wasn't as transparent as it needed to be.

"I have problems with giving three [candidates], then letting two guys get behind a door and make the decision," he said. "Things should be done out here in public."

He added that he thought the decision should be made by the school board alone.

School Board Chairman Steve Highlander pointed out that the reason the process is done that way is because of an interlocal agreement made between the county and the district several years ago.

Bennett said the agreement could be terminated unilaterally, as long as 120-day notice was given.

"Well, this is not going to be the last time that we build schools," Testerman said. "I think we need to become as transparent as we possibly can in this county. Too many things happen behind closed doors and that shouldn't be that way."

Testerman added that he wanted to see the proposal to terminate the agreement on next month's board agenda.

Before the meeting was over, the board voted to approve the superintendent's evaluation tool, as well as an amendment to its bullying policy. The policy now includes a required deadline for reporting instances of bullying.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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