Battle brewing between Hamilton County Schools, Signal Mountain over buildings

Red Bank to discuss breaking from district; East Ridge, Soddy-Daisy also considering split

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

Schools within the county’s small municipalities

Collegedale: Wolftever Creek Elementary, Ooltewah Middle SchoolEast Ridge: East Ridge Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary, East Ridge Middle School, East Ridge High SchoolLookout Mountain: Lookout Mountain ElementarySignal Mountain: Thrasher Elementary, Nolan Elementary, Signal Mountain Middle/HighSoddy-Daisy: Sequoyah, Soddy Elementary, Allen Elementary, Daisy Elementary, Soddy-Daisy Middle School, Soddy-Daisy High SchoolRed Bank: Alpine Crest Elementary, Red Bank Middle School, Red Bank High School, Dawn SchoolLakesite, Ridgeside and Walden have no schools within their boundaries.

If Signal Mountain decides to start its own school district, Hamilton County Schools is signaling that it won't give up the school buildings without a fight.

Scott Bennett, Hamilton County Board of Education's attorney, warned the town of Signal Mountain's attorney in an email Friday that if the mountain decides to start its own district, its school buildings - Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary - could be sold to developers or repurposed for the county's school system.

Community members who want the mountain to consider breaking away from the county school system believe precedent in Shelby County clears the way for them to take over the school buildings.

Several Hamilton County school board members weren't aware Monday that Bennett sent the email, but said they've asked him to research municipalities that formed individual school districts in Tennessee.

Red Bank and East Ridge are also considering creating their own school districts, and some in Soddy-Daisy have talked about doing the same. Seven of Hamilton County's 10 municipalities have schools within their limits, and 20 of the district's 76 schools are within the six small municipalities. Chattanooga has more than 40 public schools, and the unincorporated parts of the county has about a dozen schools.

Red Bank will today discuss launching a committee - like Signal Mountain did last week - to look into the viability of starting a school district independent of the county system.

Losing schools to municipalities would be a blow to Hamilton County Schools, said Kathy Lennon, who represents Signal Mountain and Red Bank on the school board.

"I don't want [Signal Mountain] to form [its] own district and take their top performing schools," Lennon said Monday. "To me, that's dividing, and I don't think that's what Chattanooga is about."

Lennon wants to be part of Signal Mountain's conversations about breaking away from the county system, but fears the divisive issue will hurt the county and its school.

School board member David Testerman, who represents East Ridge, said forming individual districts is something all municipalities should at least consider.

"There is so much uncertainty, and the public has seemed to lose a lot of trust in our system," Testerman said Monday.

For decades, the school system has neglected facilities because of a lack of funding, Testerman said. Starting individual districts could provide increased funding for maintenance and new construction, along with the ability to provide things like art, foreign language and music to students in lower grades, which are currently not offered in many of Hamilton County's schools, he said.

The school board is expected to continue discussions this month about the city of East Ridge taking control of East Ridge High School's athletic facilities. The city of East Ridge is offering to foot the bill to repair and maintain the athletic facilities if they become city property.

If the school board decides it wants to transfer the property - estimated to be about a dozen acres - the Hamilton County Commission would have to ultimately grant approval.

Testerman said it's a totally separate issue than municipalities taking control of schools, and he hopes the board will vote to allow East Ridge to take responsibility for the athletic facilities because he said it will benefit the school and bring needed repairs.

If municipalities decide to form school districts, the schools will receive state and county per- pupil allocations, meaning Hamilton County Schools would receive less money because of a decrease in enrollment, according to the state. Those pushing for Signal Mountain to consider forming its own district believe this will mean the mountain's three schools will receive an increase in funding.

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.