Hamilton County school board, county commission clash over cell tower

Seen on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in East Ridge, Tenn., the demolished Raymond James Stadium at East Ridge High School is a pile of rubble. The stadium was condemned this summer.

We should be talking about other things, namely [our students] being able to read.

The argument between the Hamilton County commission and school board over a proposed cell tower at East Ridge High School has to stop, said school board Chairman Jonathan Welch.

Speaking during Thursday night's school board meeting, Welch blamed the county commission for holding up the approval of the cell tower, which would generate money for the school system.

"They need to take action," Welch said. "If they don't go ahead and sign it, the cellphone company is going to go somewhere else."

The county commission unanimously decided Wednesday to defer a decision on the cell tower, wanting the school board to first commit to putting the money from the tower into rebuilding the school's stadium, which was condemned last year.

Commissioner Tim Boyd, who represents East Ridge and has championed using the funding to replace the school's stadium, said the deal was "almost a godsend" for the community.

The pending 25-year lease for the cell tower will generate $1,500 in base rent a month, plus a one-time $10,000 donation. The school system will also receive 35 percent of gross revenues collected by the tower company from cellular services that use the structure.

The school board previously approved an agreement that the donated money be given to the school and that rental revenues be split between the school and the district's technology fund.

School board member Karitsa Mosley called the commission's decision to delay approval of the tower "a bullying tactic," accusing them of trying to control how the school system spends money.

Welch recommended the board send a resolution to the commission asking them to approve the cell tower, and asking them to match the school system's funding to improve the district's six high school stadiums in need of repair.

Several school board members agreed with Welch, saying it's not fair for East Ridge High School to be the only school to benefit from a new stadium.

"We need to take care of this problem so we're not just leaving it out to whoever has a booster club or a Kiwanis club or just somebody with a backhoe," Welch said.

School board member David Testerman, who represents East Ridge, said he agrees and plans to make a motion in next week's meeting that action be taken and money from the fund balance be used to handle the problems with bleachers at East Ridge High School, The Howard School and Tyner Academy, as the bleachers at each of those schools are condemned.

Tired of the ongoing discussion about stadiums and the cell tower, Welch said it's time for the school system to start addressing other problems.

"We should be talking about other things, namely [our students] being able to read," he said.

During Thursday's meeting, the school board also discussed Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly's recent changes to the district's central office staff.

Kelly named Jill Levine, principal at Normal Park Museum Magnet, the district's chief academic officer just days after he was voted into the district's top post.

Kelly told the board adding Levine to the central office is budget neutral, as his former position of assistant superintendent of testing and accountability is not being replaced. He added that the position of chief academic officer will help address the district's low standardized test scores.

"We've got to do something that's a little bit different than what we've been doing," Kelly said.

School board members Rhonda Thurman and Steve Highlander questioned Kelly's decision not to replace the testing and accountability position, and expressed concern that the addition of a chief academic officer will not be budget neutral for long if someone is soon needed to fill that role.

Both of them said they would not vote to add any additional positions to the central office.

School board member Joe Galloway applauded Kelly's decision, though, saying the restructuring seems like a plan he's worked hard to develop.

"He has confidence this is going to work, and I don't have a better plan," he said.

Welch also told the board that depending on what the school system's budget looks like in the coming months, it may be time to hire a communications coordinator, a position former Superintendent Rick Smith eliminated when he was at the helm.

Kelly said he would like to have a communications coordinator by this fall.

"Given our size, we've got over 6,000 employees and right now we don't have anyone dealing with communications or public relations," he said.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.