Hamilton County school board discusses facility funding projects

New school construction expected to stir conversation among Hamilton Co. school board

The Hamilton County Commission is asking the school board for a prioritized list of facility needs, as it begins discussions about which projects it will fund this year.

A month ago, the school board asked Hamilton County school leaders to create a list of the most-pressing needs, because the school system is facing overcrowding at some schools and other buildings are so old and worn-down they are considered dangerous. The district also faces more than $200 million in deferred maintenance projects across the county.

Today is the first time the school board will see the district's list, when it meets for a facilities work session before its regular meeting.

School board member Joe Smith said he was told the district plans to provide the board with a list of the overall costs for each major repair, new school construction or additions, and not rank the projects by priority. He said the commissioner from his district is expecting a prioritized list from the board.

"We should give the commission that type of a list, even if it takes another week to get it ready," Smith said. "We need to do this the right way."

School board member David Testerman, chairman of the facilities committee, hopes the board will come to some consensus about what new schools and repairs are the most urgent.

"[The commission] will have a pretty long list of needs from us divided into what we feel are immediate needs and then those [to be accomplished in] the next two or three years," Testerman said.

He noted that it takes years to build a school, and said he hopes the commission will act with haste to help the district fund new projects.

Testerman said a priority for him is a new building for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, a magnet school that serves kindergarten to eighth grade students in his district. A new, larger building would allow the school to serve high school students too, and is expected to cost at least $55 million.

There is also a need for a new Harrison Elementary School, Testerman said.

Harrison Elementary is 77 years old and nearly beyond repair, with sewage regularly backing up into the hallways and extensive water damage. Several board members have said they want that project to be at the top of the list presented to the commission.

Parents and grandparents of students at Harrison have emailed the district and members of the school board voicing concern about their kids' safety, with one threatening a lawsuit if the school's facility is not addressed.

Construction of a new Harrison Elementary is expected to cost about $35 million and could allow the school to serve 900 students, meaning it could take students from Lakeside and Hillcrest, which are both nearby. Harrison is now located in District 9, but land has been donated to the district for the new school a little ways down Highway 58, which would make the new school in District 5.

Earlier this week, school board member Karitsa Mosley Jones told a group gathered at Brainerd High School for a district 5 community meeting that she supports building a new Harrison Elementary, if it is in her district. Hillcrest and Lakeside are District 5 schools, and she said she doesn't want to lose those students to another district.

"I feel like I can only support [the new Harrison] if I know the school will remain in District 5," she said.

It's also on the board's agenda to vote on giving the deed to the East Ridge High School athletic facilities to the city tonight, after discussing and revising the details of the agreement since November.

The East Ridge City Council unanimously voted last week to approve the interlocal agreement developed by attorneys from the city and school board. If the school board votes in favor of the move, the Hamilton County Commission will have to ratify the deal.

The school's athletic facilities, which cover about 12 acres, have not received needed maintenance for years. Just last year, East Ridge High School's football stadium was condemned. The school board decided last year to allocate more than $900,000 to repair seven of the district's stadiums, including the one at East Ridge.

The transfer of the athletic properties to the municipality allows it to leverage state grants to cover costs of repairs and upgrades, saving the school district maintenance dollars. The agreement gives the middle and high school priority use of the tennis courts, two soccer fields, ball field, football stadium and track, but the facilities also will be accessible to the community.

Testerman said he hopes the board votes to sign over the properties.

"If it doesn't happen, I think East Ridge will be disappointed," Testerman said.

If the deal gets approved, he said other municipalities across the county may consider doing the same thing, which could relieve the district of some maintenance costs and upkeep.

East Ridge is considering forming a committee to look at separating from Hamilton County Schools, and the athletic property transfer agreement specifically bars the city from using that property to operate a public, private or parochial school.

Signal Mountain and Red Bank have both seated committees to investigate the feasibility of breaking away from the county school system.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.