Signal Mountain to consider forming own school district

This 2008 file photo shows the exterior of Signal Mountain Middle High School.

If Signal Mountain residents approve, the town could form its own school district, with three of Hamilton County's top-performing schools.

Calls were made to elected officials Thursday, notifying them that the Signal Mountain Town Council will discuss launching a committee to study the feasibility of breaking away from Hamilton County Schools during today's agenda session.

"We are doing a disservice by not at least looking at [this option]," said Chris Howley, a Signal Mountain councilman.

For several months, a small group of people has been considering forming the separate district, saying it would grant mountain residents greater control over student education and opportunities and provide increased autonomy to meet student needs.

Howley said he is not convinced it is the best option for the mountain's three schools - Signal Mountain Middle/High, Nolan Elementary and Thrasher Elementary - but it's important the town at least consider how it might benefit students and residents.

Before the district could be launched, Signal Mountain residents would have to vote to establish it, which would involve creating a separate school board and hiring a superintendent to oversee the three schools about 2,500 students attend.

For years, people on the mountain have been talking about breaking away from the county school system, and some are now deciding to take action at a time when Hamilton County Schools is wrestling with the fallout from the Ooltewah High School rape case, extra scrutiny from the state and lawmakers about student achievement and uncertainty surrounding the district's future leadership.

Other communities in Hamilton County also have quietly kicked around the idea of forming independent school districts, including East Ridge, Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy.

About 8,500 people live in the town of Signal Mountain, which is one of the wealthiest pockets of the county, and just under 6,000 people are registered to vote. If a majority of voters approve the district, students living in Signal Mountain would attend the new district's schools, and those living in Walden and the unincorporated areas of the mountain would have priority enrollment.

By the numbers:

Hamilton County Schools: about 57 percent of the student body is white, and about 60 percent of students live in poverty.Signal Mountain Middle/High School: about 93 percent of the student body is white, and about 13 percent of students live in poverty.Thrasher Elementary: about 95 percent of the student body is white, and about 11 percent of students live in poverty.Nolan Elementary: about 94 percent of the student body is white, and about 13 percent of students live in poverty.Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said he received a call Thursday morning notifying him that Signal Mountain is considering forming its own district.

"It's early, we know they are in the process of exploring becoming their own school district," Kelly said, but he did not comment further.

Leaders pushing for the independent district say the move would not increase taxes for those living on the mountain, as the three schools would still receive the average per-pupil allocations from the state and county, which they estimate actually would result in the schools receiving more money.

But, if approved, the municipality would be taking on responsibility for the schools, including repairs, insurance and future construction.

The mountain community long has supported its schools, and Signal Mountain and Walden voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase that provided $10 million toward the construction of Signal Mountain Middle/High School.

Howley said if council members agree to start a committee to study the viability of starting a separate district, the group's work needs to be independent and transparent.

If the council agrees to start the committee, people would apply to be a part of it in coming weeks and the group ideally would start meeting in January, Howley said. If the committee seems to think a separate school district will benefit the town, the council would have to decide whether it wants to hold a special election to vote on the referendum or wait two years for a regular election.

Hamilton County would be the second large Tennessee school system to lose schools to municipalities.

In 2014, six municipalities in Shelby County started their own districts, just three years after the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district merged with the primarily white Shelby County Schools in one of the largest school mergers in the nation's history.

The establishment of these new districts caused a legal battle among the groups, setting some legal precedents and prompting new legislation to be passed in the Tennessee General Assembly, opening the door for municipalities like Signal Mountain to form their own districts.

Several of the Shelby County municipalities ended up buying the school buildings from Shelby County Schools in a $10 quitclaim deed. In a legal settlement, the municipalities also paid Shelby County Schools millions of dollars that went to post-employment benefits for the county schools' retirees.

Chattanooga City Schools and Hamilton County Schools merged in 1997 after city voters decided to get out of the school business.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.