The Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts is just one of many schools that could benefit from the $100 million allocated for school repairs by the Hamilton County Commission.
The school's building is more than 60 years old and is riddled with maintenance problems, from peeling paint to leaky windows and pipes. UnifiEd's open letter to the Hamilton County Department of Education — sent earlier this week — aimed to put the spotlight back on those maintenance issues that plague CSLA and many other schools across the district.
The letter called for an unbiased assessment of schools' safety issues due to deferred maintenance, student capacity, building quality and the estimated cost to repair or replace schools, as well as a multiyear plan to tackle those needs. The education department formally responded to the letter on the same day, stating that a complete facility plan was finished on Jan. 20 that highlighted the many needs of Hamilton County's public schools.
But Amy Bartley, a CSLA parent, said she fully agrees with UnifiEd's call to action and thinks a districtwide audit will help. She's concerned CSLA may not receive any funding because of the high estimate associated with new construction costs.
She said an unbiased report will help "estimates be more closely examined so school board members know exactly what they're voting on."
CSLA being closed is another concern of parents and school employees, and some groups have already recommended consolidating buildings and reducing staff. In May, a group of 11 business and community leaders created a 70-page report detailing strategies the county and district could implement to bring long-term savings and boost student outcomes.
Nick Decosimo, a member of the the budget report group, said a group of knowledgeable community members should be the ones to determine which schools should close.
"One of the things we found, based on comparison to districts of similar size, we just have too many buildings," he said. "You multiply services by having multiple small schools that could be consolidated — it just costs more."
Decosimo said it's a challenge because people like having smaller neighborhood schools.
But that's not the case at CSLA, several staff members pointed out. Being a magnet school, CSLA has students from all around Hamilton County. And despite the many maintenance problems, many parents still want their children to go there. The school has about 700 students on a waiting list, and around 200 more are added each year.
Tamarah Daniel's son is one of those students. He's been on the waiting list since kindergarten. He's in second grade now at East Brainerd Elementary. Daniel said she renews his application every year "like clockwork."
"I've been to the school, I've seen the portable trailers," she said. "We tell ourselves, 'This is only temporary because we have some overcrowding issues,' but it's not. It's a great school that we have here in Chattanooga. They have the potential to be more if they had the space, if they had a new building where they could have more classrooms."
Jennifer Parris, parent volunteer coordinator for CSLA, processes student applications and manages the wait list.
"[Parents] see the old ceiling, the cracks in the tiles," she said. "They know it's not a brand-new building. But they see what goes on in the classroom. We love what goes on here in these walls, and we're advocating for all Hamilton County schools."
School board member Tiffanie Robinson said the timing of UnifiEd's letter was good.
"I think that the letter is reflective of questions that the community is asking," she said. "The superintendent is communicating with the board right now about next steps, so we are anticipating to see some form of a plan in the next couple of weeks."
Robinson said she thinks the board is interested in having a more in-depth long-term plan put together, but she thinks that will take some time. Right now the board has not discussed whether an outside group will help to create a multiyear plan, she said, but it's something she hopes will happen.
"Hopefully we can all collaborate on what this multiyear plan looks like," she said.
New school Superintendent Bryan Johnson did not immediately return a request for comment, but he has talked before about his multiyear plan.
Johnson has said he hopes to work with the board and educators throughout the school system to develop a multiyear strategic plan for the district and a road map for tackling deferred maintenance. He said it needs to be aligned with the community's objectives and the district's budget to be built off the plans.
Bartley said it's important to her for Johnson to have a fair chance to lead the board and see what direction he plans to take.
"Let us remain optimistic as the new chapter begins," she said.
Daniel hopes the district makes the best of the opportunity.
"Let's make sure we're making the right decisions and spending it the correct way," she said. "Let's use it to the best of our ability for the schools, the kids. Because once it's gone, it's gone. We can't get it back."
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.