East Hamilton County rezoning meetings show slow progress

East Hamilton County rezoning meetings show slow progress

March 25th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith is seen in this file photo.

Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith is seen in...

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.


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 also are proposed to be rezoned to alleviate overcrowding and in preparation for construction of two new elementary schools.

Though talks continue, parents and school administrators say they're a long way from completing their study of a proposal to rezone schools in East Hamilton County.

A parent committee tapped by the school board to provide community input on administrators' zoning plan met with officials twice last week for a total of about five hours. Both meetings were closed to the public. And at school officials' request, parents agreed not to discuss specifics of the meetings publicly.

But both parties say some progress, if slow, is being made.

"I don't think right now that we're anywhere close to where we want to be. But I think we'll get there," Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said.

However, committee member Ryan Ledford said on Saturday that while the parents have met with the assistant superintendent, they have yet to present their ideas to school board members.

"If this is just being done to placate us, that's a problem," said Janet Sivils, one of about 20 parents who met with committee members on Saturday to discuss the group's progress.

The committee is on a tight deadline because Smith wants to see the zoning recommendations finalized and put before the school board for a vote by its April 19 meeting. Approving a rezoning plan in April will give families plenty of time to plan how they'll cope with changing schools over the summer, he said.

District leaders are providing the committee with information about the plan, Smith said, so they can understand better why certain areas were and were not selected for rezoning. After that, it's not clear what the group's next move will be.

"I don't know where we'll go," he said.

In Saturday's meeting with parents, committee member Steve Purcell, who led the discussion, said he has recommended buying portables for East Hamilton Middle and High School. He said the county could place 10 portables for no more than $1 million to accommodate 500 to 600 students while the board studies population growth to better determine long-term solutions.

Purcell also said he urged officials to decouple elementary school rezoning from middle and high school rezoning, and added that the board should consider building a new middle school in the area.

Many appreciated Purcell's suggestions.

"I'd rather have my kids in portables in East Hamilton than be rezoned," said parent Nancy Tyler.

Purcell said he worries that the current rezoning plan simply will shift overcrowding from East Hamilton Middle/High and other area schools to schools in the Ooltewah area. If that happens, rezoning could be needed again in just a few years. Whatever plan ultimately is approved, he hopes it accounts for future growth.

"It has to be something that plans for growth. It has to be," Purcell said. "If it's not planning for growth, I'm afraid we're doomed for failure."

Ledford, a parent who has led the charge against the rezoning proposal, said he believes the meetings are moving beyond the informational phase, allowing parents to question details of the plan.

"The only way you're going to find real solutions is if you challenge each other," Ledford said Thursday.

Ledford said the committee has started to share its own ideas, but given the short time frame for getting the rezoning proposal finished, the pace of progress seems slow, he said.

"It's a painstaking process," he said. "We're exchanging dialogue, but we're just not moving forward at a rapid pace."

On Saturday, he told fellow parents of his frustration.

"I want to scream louder than you can imagine, but they're counting on writing us off for being overemotional, which they'll equate with ignorance," he said.

Staff writer Steve Hardy contributed to this report. Follow the latest Chattanooga news on Facebook.