The Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday agreed to move forward on the construction of a new East Brainerd Elementary School, though a similar effort failed to pass the County Commission just a day before.
The 8-1 board vote to select TWH Architects for the school puts the fate of the project back in the hands of the Hamilton County Commission, which voted 7-2 on Wednesday against the measure. The decision needs formal approval from both bodies.
On Wednesday, commissioners said they wanted to see a complete list of future building needs before approving the architect. They also wanted to know how the board would spend proceeds from the sale of the current East Brainerd and Ooltewah elementary buildings.
School board member Rhonda Thurman, the lone dissenting vote on the measure, said the board shouldn't move forward on East Brainerd until commissioners resolved their issues.
"I just wonder how they're going to feel about it," she said. "Poking our finger in their eye has not worked real well before."
She said it was important to be on the same page as the commission, because it controls the school system's funding.
"Them that's got the gold makes the rules. They've got the money and we don't," Thurman said. "I'm just very cautious about doing anything like this before we get their approval."
But because the measure needed joint approval, Assistant Superintendent Gary Waters said the board's vote would help complete one step of the process, and wouldn't be a hostile move against the commission.
"You really jeopardize the ability to open this school by August of 2014 if we wait any longer," he said.
Board member Linda Mosley said the board needed to act because of the crowded conditions at the current school, which is currently split between two buildings.
"We need to think about children first. We are bursting at the seams in East Brainerd," she said.
School board Chairman Mike Evatt said the board hasn't given the commission its entire $252 million building plan because it doesn't know how much and when funding will be made available by the commission. The board has only approved a first phase of the facilities plan, which Evatt said has been passed along to the commission.
"I think it would be kind of ridiculous to propose a full-blown building plan to the commission with $252 million of projects at one time. That's why you break it into phases," he said.
Evatt said he would continue talks with Commission Chairman Larry Henry and set up a future joint meeting of the two bodies.
Even before bringing up East Brainerd, board members discussed the need to sit down with commissioners and discuss school funding.
After the board approved a $6.2 million measure to replace the 52-year-old HVAC system at Brainerd High, board member Greg Martin described the school district's capital improvement budget as "woefully underfunded."
He pointed to several buildings in his district with leaky roofs.
"We can talk about building buildings and I'm all for that," he said. "But we also need to take care of some of the infrastructure."
Board member David Testerman said the commission needs to hear about more than just leaky roofs. He said other problems like losing teachers to better pay in neighboring states are also hurting the school system.
"These are some things we need to bring to the commission's knowledge," he said. "We are losing good teachers and it affects our schools."
Board member George Ricks said an in-person meeting with the commission is necessary.
"It's time to sit down and talk about funding our schools at an adequate level," he said. "We need to stop playing games. We need money."