Just follow the money - and timing - of school building decisions

Just follow the money - and timing - of school building decisions

June 28th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks in this file photo.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

"The Hamilton County Schools system is $2.1 million closer to its next building project. But board members will need to sell their projects to county commissioners before a dime gets spent."

That was the lead on a story by reporter Louie Brogdon in Thursday's Times Free Press. The news came out of a Wednesday commission agenda session when County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the county has collected $2.1 million for the old Ooltewah Elementary facility, which has been vacant since May 2013. A company called Benchmark bought the property.

Based on some unusual resolutions passed in 2004 and 2011, the money from the sale can be spent only on a short list of capital school projects. A majority of the school board and the commission must agree on the project before any money can be spent.

"It could go for new building sites, which would be property purchases, or improvements to existing buildings -- or new buildings," Coppinger said Wednesday.

The new money adds to county money the schools received in Coppinger's latest budget. That budget included $399 million for schools -- a $5.5 million increase from last year.

What remains unclear is the timing and leadership of how the now more than $400 million will be allocated.

Will the question be left to incoming school board members and county commissioners? There are presently five contested school board seats up for grabs in the August county general election and five county commission seats with opposition -- including school board member Rhonda Thurman's write-in challenge of Randy Fairbanks, who bested long-time District 1 Commissioner and former school board member Fred Skillern in the May county primary election.

Or will the old guard again hold sway while they remain in office?

Commissioner Skillern said last week that the commission this coming week likely will vote on architects to build a new elementary school and additions at three other schools the commission agreed to fund in March.

According to that proposed resolution, the Ganns Middle Valley Elementary job would go to Derthick, Henley & Wilkerson Architects. Franklin Architects would get the Nolan Elementary School addition. Hefferlin + Kronenberg Architects would add to Sale Creek Middle/High School, and Billingsley Architecture would expand Wolftever Elementary School.

What was the the thinking on the unusual sale resolutions? Well, money, of course. And who controls it.

On Oct. 19, 2011, the county commission agreed 8-0 to spend $875,000 on 33.97 acres off Ooltewah-Georgetown Road for a new Ooltewah Elementary School -- but only if the county could keep revenues from the sale of the current school building, which then was valued at about $1 million.

While the county would keep control of the money, Commissioner Joe Graham, who proposed the conditions, said funds from the sale would go toward school capital projects.

At the time, school board Chairman Mike Evatt said he was disappointed with the amendment. He said 11 school buildings are titled to the county government or jointly to the county and the school system. The rest of the county's school buildings, including Ooltewah's, are owned by the school system.

"Historically, we've always used the money for sales like that to go back into capital improvements," he said. "Why have money change hands if they're going to give it back to us when we need it?"

Good question.

This week's sale gives the public a great chance to watch how things turn out.