County Commission refuses to OK school architect; Mackey calls for meeting with school board

photo Pamela Lanier, who teaches second grade, directs students onto a bus at East Brainerd Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon.
photo Warren Mackey of Chattanooga

The standoff between the Hamilton County Commission and school board over East Brainerd Elementary escalated Wednesday morning, leading one commissioner to call for joint meetings of the two bodies.

Commissioners voted 7-2 against approving an architect for a new East Brainerd Elementary School, refusing to rescind a move they made in June to halt the architect selection process until the school board presents a facilities plan to them. Commissioners also want to know what the schools plan to do with the proceeds of the sale of the current East Brainerd Elementary site, which is deeded to the board of education.

Assistant Superintendent Gary Waters, the lone schools representative at the commission meeting, said the system plans to give the old East Brainerd Elementary and Ooltewah Elementary properties to the county to sell on the schools' behalf. A resolution to do so is on the school board's agenda for tonight.

School board Chairman Mike Evatt accused the commission of holding East Brainerd "hostage," saying Wednesday afternoon that the schools have given commissioners the first phase of a three-phase facilities plan several times. The school board has approved only the first phase, he said.

"The architect selection and the construction of East Brainerd Elementary have nothing to do with the sale of the old East Brainerd Elementary or the sale of the old Ooltewah Elementary School," Evatt said. "Don't hold the new elementary school hostage just because of something that's going to happen in 18 months."

School officials say building the new school is imperative as East Brainerd's current buildings continue to grow in enrollment. The school counted 715 students on Monday's first day of school, up 48 from last year.

Commission Education Committee Chairman Warren Mackey said he plans to call for three joint meetings between the bodies, including one in coming weeks.

The schools and county commissioners usually sit down each year before budget hearings to talk about priorities, but this year Mackey canceled the discussion.

"I don't regret it," he said. "There was so much tension abounding at that time. Now that the superintendent has a chance to put into place his team, his principals, it is on his shoulders."

The total three-phase plan calls for about $250 million in capital projects.

The County Commission is the taxing authority and issues bonds to build new schools. Commissioners appropriate a lump sum to the school board, which sets the budget and oversees the administration.

However, after the commission halted the architect process for East Brainerd, a selection committee continued to meet, whittling down a list of three architects. Commission Chairman Larry Henry and Commissioner Tim Boyd served on the committee.

On Aug. 6, Superintendent Rick Smith and Mayor Jim Coppinger met to select TWH Architects as the finalist.

Coppinger urged commissioners on Wednesday to approve the architect.

"You're going to have many opportunities as this goes along to stop this process," Coppinger said. "I just hate to see this thing get confused with where the sale of the property goes."

Commissioner Jim Fields read from the resolution passed in June and noted that, if the selection committee continued to meet, then the resolution had no teeth.

"I don't know about y'all, but it seems 'is hereby halted' means nothing else should be done," Fields said. "If we're going to vote on resolutions, maybe we should abide by the resolutions we voted on.

"Apparently it wasn't halted," he said. "If you pass a resolution, does it really matter if nobody pays attention to it?"

Boyd said he's reviewed the phases of the schools' facilities plan, but he wants a timeline.

"That's dependent on this commission," Waters said.

Commissioners Greg Beck and Chester Bankston were the only two who voted to approve the architect selection and rescind the June resolution.

Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this story.