Hamilton County commissioners air concerns over rezoning

Hamilton County commissioners air concerns over rezoning

March 11th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Parents and students gather in the gymnasium of East Hamilton High School on Feb. 28 for a meeting to discuss a new zoning plan for Hamilton County Schools. The meeting was held to inform residents of the new zoning changes and give them a chance to voice their opinions.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

PARENTS' QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Superintendent Rick Smith answers some of parents' most common questions on the rezoning proposal.

Q. What will it cost the school system to bus students to schools in Ooltewah, which are located farther from students' East Brainerd homes?

A. Smith said the school system didn't save any money when it stopped busing area students to Ooltewah and began sending buses to the closer East Hamilton Middle/High School three years ago. He said administrators will study the situation and rework bus lines and the number of routes run.

"It was pretty much a wash then. So I think it will be a wash today," he said.

Q. Will Ooltewah schools begin their day later to allow for the lengthy bus rides of rezoned East Brainerd students? (Ooltewah Middle, Hunter Middle and Ooltewah High all start the school day at 7:15 a.m.)

A. Smith said those schools had the same early start time four years ago when East Brainerd students were there. He expects the start times to hold steady. In fact, about 80 percent of Ooltewah High students voted to keep the current bell times in a poll given at the school several years ago, Smith said.

"They preferred the early start time," he said.

Q. Why wasn't the planned new East Hamilton Middle School ever built? Wouldn't that have solved the problem of overcrowding at the current school?

A. Smith said he couldn't speak to why the project was put on the backburner. But he said the $50 million recently given to the school system for new facilities is best spent on new Ooltewah Elementary and East Brainerd Elementary schools. Smith said growth will hit hardest first at the elementary schools. That doesn't mean the new middle school is forgotten. It's on the school system's facilities plan, though it's several items down the list.

"It became clear that we had to do something in elementary schools. We have to build some larger elementary schools in the east county," he said.


THE STORY SO FAR

Hamilton County Schools administrators have created a rezoning plan for schools on the east side of the county. Plans call for moving several hundred students from East Hamilton Middle/High School to Hunter Middle, Ooltewah Middle and Ooltewah High. About 10 elementary schools are also proposed to be rezoned as the system tries to alleviate overcrowding and prepares to build two new area elementary schools.


WHAT'S NEXT?

The Hamilton County Board of Education will hold a work session at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium of Tyner Academy, 6836 Tyner Road, to discuss the rezoning proposal.

Dissenting parents now have a little company in their opposition to a rezoning proposal that stands to change which schools students attend in East Hamilton County.

Noting that they have received dozens of calls and emails from families, Hamilton County commissioners brought up the rezoning proposal at a meeting last week and pointed out their problems with the plan. Some commissioners proposed alternatives to rezoning, such as a new middle school or the temporary use of portable classrooms.

Commissioner Fred Skillern noted that the rezoning process is out of the commission's purview. The commission funds the school system, but the school board oversees school policies and operations.

"When money gets involved is when our input gets involved," Skillern said.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, who represents District 7, which includes East Hamilton, said he worries that the plan is not a long-term fix. Earlier in the week, Henry said the Ooltewah area, which is set to receive hundreds of rezoned students under the plan, is expected to see growth of its own. So East Hamilton's overcrowding problems may just migrate to Ooltewah schools.

"It appears to me if you redraw the numbers in District 7, you're going to be faced with the same problem in two years," he said. "I don't think rezoning is a solution right now."

Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said he hadn't had many conversations with commissioners over the rezoning plan. He's the first to admit that the plan isn't a long-term solution and future rezoning or building probably will be necessary. But he said rezoning is necessary, too.

"This is not a fix," Smith said. "We've got to be practical. We have some schools overcrowded and some with space."

The rezoning plan will now go in front of the school board when it holds its first public discussion on the matter at a Tuesday work session.

School administrators have pitched their plan on how to rezone schools to alleviate overcrowding at East Hamilton Middle/High School, which is several hundred students over capacity. If approved by the school board, the plan will move students from the East Hamilton area into Ooltewah schools.

The plan also calls for rezoning about 10 elementary schools as the district moves to alleviate overcrowding and add two new elementary schools in coming years.

The unveiling of the plan drew shock and outrage from families who would be rezoned. Parents say they have now moved past raw emotion and are working to organize efforts to stop or slow the rezoning. They've knocked on doors, gathered petitions and even staged a protest last week at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

Like some parents, Henry also questioned the thinking behind the new lines.

"You have some of the subdivisions that were within two to four miles of the school being rezoned to a school 10 miles away," he said. "I don't understand the process used for it."

At Wednesday's commission meeting, Henry said he doesn't like the use of portable classrooms but noted that was an option. He said the school system is in a tight spot because of poor long-term facility planning.

"Now it's almost too late to put the fire out in the house after it's already burned down," he said.

District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham said he thought the school board should act quickly to alleviate overcrowding on the east side of the county. District 6 covers Lookout Valley and other areas in the southwestern part of the county.

The school system plans eventually to build a new middle school on property near Apison Elementary School, which would alleviate overcrowding at East Hamilton by allowing it to operate as a stand-alone high school. Parents have argued that, if the new middle school were already under way, this rezoning process wouldn't be necessary.

The county recently made $50 million available for school building projects. With the money, school officials plan to build new Ooltewah Elementary and East Brainerd Elementary schools to relieve overcrowded elementary schools. But Graham thinks a middle school should be a top priority.

"I would suggest we build a middle school as quick as we can," he said.

Skillern, whose District 1 covers Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek, noted that overcrowding isn't a problem just on the east side. He pointed out that nearly the entire middle school at Sale Creek Middle/High is in portables.

Smith said administrators are reconsidering their proposed grandfathering provision, which would allow some students to finish at their current schools. They've proposed allowing current East Hamilton students and some elementary students to finish out their stays at the schools, though transportation would no longer be provided for rezoned students.

The problem parents see is that their children could eventually be attending two schools. But Smith noted "the more grades you grandfather, the less space you're going to have available for growth."

The grandfathering is a sticking point for Amy Vaughn, who has a kindergartner and a third-grader at Westview Elementary School. Under the current proposal, her third-grader will finish at Westview before being moved to Ooltewah schools. But her kindergartner will be moved after second grade.

"I don't understand that. It makes no sense," Vaughn said. "You should be able to attend the school until you graduate."

She and her husband closed on their Belleau Woods home on Valentine's Day, about two weeks before the rezoning plans were announced. Had they stayed at their previous home, they wouldn't have been rezoned, Vaughn said.

She said they moved to Belleau Woods to be near other families with young children. And they bought both their current and previous homes on that side of the county to be in Westview's zone.

Vaughn said the neighborhood has united in its efforts to fight the rezoning proposal. And while she does have worries about property value, she said quality schools are her main concern.

"My biggest concern is education for my children. I want them to have the best opportunity from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade," she said. "A good education is priceless."

Staff writer Ansley Haman contributed to this report.