Hamilton County sets aside $50 million in funds for schools

Hamilton County sets aside $50 million in funds for schools

October 27th, 2011 by Kevin Hardy and Ansley Haman in News

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks Wednesday morning about the plan by Hamilton County officials to make $50 million available for new school construction.

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County officials announced Wednesday that they will make an additional $50 million available for school construction without a tax increase.

Now the county and the school system must decide how to spend it.

Superintendent Rick Smith said Wednesday that the money would likely go toward new elementary schools in fast-growing areas. Much growth is associated with new jobs at companies such as Volkswagen and Amazon.

School officials have a $247 million preliminary facilities plan that will be given to the school board today.

The county has spent months reorganizing its financial house to take advantage of record-low interest rates to help fund capital projects, County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Wednesday.

"What we're trying to do is enhance opportunities for our students," Coppinger said. "Everyone has their own opinions about where the new schools should be. That's a process that should begin now."

The county's announcement came a day after it received a 2.737 percent true interest cost rate for $86 million in new bond sales. The low rate saved the county more than $2 million.

Maintaining its AAA bond rating from all three major ratings agencies allowed the county to make the $50 million available, Coppinger said.

School facilities have been a hot topic for school board members and county commissioners in recent months.

Smith recently said the county is at least a year behind in building schools.

"Fifty million dollars, although that is a sizable investment, it is not sufficient" to meet all the needs, Smith said Wednesday.

Phase I of the proposed facilities plan would cost $67 million for six projects. The first three are replacement schools for Ooltewah and East Brainerd elementary schools, and an addition and renovation at Snow Hill Elementary. Those three are estimated to total $49.8 million.

Gary Waters, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, is cautious about predicting which of the school system's projects will take priority. But he said for $50 million, the school district could probably build two elementary schools and an addition to another elementary school.

He noted that the facilities plan has yet to be approved by the school board.

Once the board acts, the plan would go to the county. Commissioners must agree to the proposed projects in order to finance the construction, said Louis Wright, the county's finance administrator.

Commissioners have pushed schools officials for a long-range facilities plan.

The school board will hold a work session at 4 p.m. today to address the plan and facilities concerns. The regular board meeting is at 5 p.m.

The school board also will consider an amendment that county commissioners approved last week to a contract to buy land for a new Ooltewah Elementary School. Commissioners agreed to pay $875,000 for the land, but only if the school board will promise to hand over proceeds from a future sale of the current school site.

The board will vote whether to agree to that proposal or send it back to the commission. The matter is time-sensitive because of a pending deal with a developer who has option contracts on the land.

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