Normal Park school zoning dispute on agenda

Normal Park school zoning dispute on agenda

October 28th, 2011 by Kevin Hardy in News

Only standing room is available for the audience during Thursday night's school board meeting. Among the topics discussed were zoning for Normal Park and transparency of the lottery system.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

After filling up the school board meeting room, about 60 residents of the Hill City neighborhood left Thursday's meeting deflated that board members didn't bring their concerns to a vote.

But the Hamilton County Board of Education said it will hear both sides of a years-long back-and-forth over zoning of Normal Park Museum Magnet School at a special meeting next week.

After hearing from many Hill City residents in recent months, board member Joe Galloway made a last-minute motion to add the item to Thursday's agenda. Families in the area are asking the school board to allow their students into Normal Park, instead of busing them several miles away to schools in Red Bank.

In 2007, the school board voted to expand Normal Park's boundaries to include the area of Bell and Spears avenues. But in 2010, then-Superintendent Jim Scales said the zone would not widen because of more families moving into Normal Park's boundaries.

Board member Chip Baker asked for a special meeting so the body could hear both sides of the issue.

"This is a longstanding discussion," he said. "We need to hear both sides. This is a chance to get all the information out there."

But residents said the school board has had plenty of time to learn about the issue.

Organizers said they've provided board members with census data and public records to help inform their decision.

"I think the board should have already looked at all the information they were given," said Hill City resident Nelson Barrios.

He said he was disappointed by the board's inaction and hopes next Thursday's meeting will be more fruitful.

"I wanted to see a vote," Barrios said. "I'm just concerned about the promise that was made. What I see is people taking the easy way out instead of fulfilling that promise."

Board member Rhonda Thurman said the neighborhood association had "begged us to meet" for months. She said she was well informed on the issue and ready to bring it to a vote.

"I don't have a problem with a discussion. I just hate to keep putting these people off," Thurman said. "I don't know what the purpose is."

A motion to postpone the issue until next week passed 6-1, with Thurman casting the only dissenting vote. Galloway, who represents the Hill City area, abstained from the vote; board member Linda Mosley was absent.

The board will meet at 5 p.m. Thursday to hear from Hill City residents, representatives of Normal Park and school district administrators, officials said.

Rhiannon Maynard, president of the Hill City Neighborhood Association, said she was surprised that board members requested more information. She's said she's been in contact with board members for months, providing CDs, binders and documents filled with information about demographics and data on students attending Normal Park.

"If there are school board members that need more information, sure we can do that. I'm just confused as to what additional information they need," she said. "I've been calling them for the past couple months -- all of them."

Maynard said the board should simply "make a plan and keep its promise" to solve the zoning issue. Hill City residents say the school should slow down the number of out-of-zone magnet students it lets in from the lottery process to make room for the students in its own backyard.

The Hill City neighborhood is about 1.3 miles from Normal Park Lower, while the upper school is less than a mile away, Maynard said. Red Bank schools are more than four miles away.

Maynard said residents aren't trying to wage a war against current Normal Park families.

"This isn't us against them," she said. "It is us trying to make community partners with our community school."

In other business, the board:

• Voted 8-0 to approve Phase I of a facilities plan that calls for an estimated $67 million in construction projects. The first phase calls for a new Ooltewah Elementary School, a new East Brainerd Elementary and additions and/or renovations at Snow Hill Elementary, Wolftever Elementary and Nolan Elementary. It also calls for an addition to Sale Creek Middle/High, though it notes the board should consider building a new school.

The board approved the plan, but has yet to approve specific spending measures.

Hamilton County, which funds the school system, announced this week it was able to free up $50 million for new school construction by refinancing existing debt. That allows the school board to move ahead on planning and construction for the new Ooltewah Elementary.

The board approved the county's amendment on the purchase of new property that calls for the school system to turn over revenues from the sale of the current elementary building to the county.

• Approved on a 8-0 vote a move by Galloway to make the lottery process for magnet schools transparent. Administrators said they were studying ways to make the lottery process fairer and easier to understand.

• Voted 7-1 on a resolution discouraging school vouchers. Board member Linda Mosley submitted the document. Rhonda Thurman voted against it. Hamilton County belongs to the Coalition of Large School Systems, which also represents Metro Nashville and Knox and Shelby county systems in an effort to oppose vouchers.

The group is aligning schools following the approval of a state Senate-approved bill that would have allowed thousands of students to claim vouchers to attend private schools.