Signal Mountain council sets date for vote on new school district feasibility committee

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

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

Signal Mountain seems prepared to continue investigating the viability of forming its own school district.

During a packed agenda session Friday, the Town Council unanimously approved holding a Dec. 12 vote on whether to establish a special citizens committee to research the idea.

"The potential upside is significant, and I think we owe it to our folks to look at its viability," Chris Howley, the newly elected mayor of Signal Mountain, told the council Friday.

Howley said he supports a transparent and impartial study of the idea but is adamant that Signal Mountain voters - through a referendum - will have the final say about breaking away from Hamilton County Schools.

Projections also need to show a new school district will positively impact residents and students and will have a neutral or positive financial impact on the town and taxpayers, Howley said.

If Signal Mountain voters decide to break away from Hamilton County Schools, it could take control of Signal Mountain Middle/High, Nolan Elementary and Thrasher Elementary, three of the county's top-performing schools. A separate school board would be established and a new superintendent would be hired to oversee the three schools attended by about 2,500 students.

Signal Mountain meets the state's qualifications for forming its own school district, but the Tennessee Department of Education has yet to be notified by anyone from Signal Mountain about the idea.

"We would want to work closely with folks on the ground as they are considering this," said Sara Gast, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education. "As always, we want each decision that is made at the local level to ultimately be in the best interests of students to ensure that their progress continues."

The state can't prevent a municipality from creating its own district, but the Tennessee Department of Education does decide if the newly created district is ready to serve students, Gast said. This determination involves an application process, along with a school and program approval form for each school the district wants to open.

If Signal Mountain decides to take the three schools from Hamilton County control, it will continue to receive per-pupil allocations from the state and county, which supporters of the new district believe will result in the mountain's schools receiving more money. Leaders pushing for the independent district believe the move would not initially increase taxes for those living on the mountain.

But Hamilton County Schools will likely face a decrease in overall funding if the new district is formed, because the county is allowed to cut school funding to the district if enrollment decreases, according to the state.

If Signal Mountain creates a district, the state would work with Hamilton County Schools and the new district to determine what the estimated enrollment would be for each district and what funding would look like, Gast said.

The county and school district could launch a legal battle with Signal Mountain, arguing the municipality needs to buy the school properties or pay other costs.

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.

Supporters of forming a new district on Signal Mountain say it will grant residents greater control over student education and opportunities and provide increased autonomy to meet student needs. For several months, a small group of people have been considering the idea, including: Don Close, Rob Hensley, Bill Kennedy, Bill Leonard, Kayse Rigsby and Amy Wakim.

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.

If the council agrees to launch the seven-member committee to look into the new district's feasibility on Dec. 12, people can apply to be a part of the group in the coming weeks. Two or three spots on the committee could be held by non-Signal Mountain residents, the council agreed Friday.

During the meeting, Councilman Dan Landrum said he has a lot of unanswered questions about the potential district. He said the idea could be fantastic, but he wants to know more from those who have been doing a preliminary look into the idea.

He added that it could be a "public relations swamp if [handled] incorrectly."

Councilman Dick Gee clarified that if a committee is appointed to look into this idea, the members are not tasked with making a recommendation, but with sorting out the facts.

"This is not totally new ground in the state of Tennessee," Gee added.

Hamilton County would be the second-largest 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. The establishment of these new districts caused a legal battle among the groups.

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.