Hamilton County school board votes to spend more than $500,000 for firm to assess conditions of school facilities

The price tag on this is staggering. ... We're spending $500,000 for someone from out of town to come in and tell us what we should already know. - Rhonda Thurman

The Hamilton County Board of Education voted Thursday night to spend nearly half a million dollars to assess the condition of the district's facilities and develop a strategic plan for capital projects and maintenance.

Despite heated disapproval from District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman, the board voted 6-2 to approve a $337,915 bid from MGT Consulting Group to conduct a multi-layered audit of the district's buildings and their maintenance needs and a $149,930 bid to study and predict future growth and capacity.

photo Board member Rhonda Thurman speaks amid a discussion about equity in the school system during a Hamilton County Board of Education work session on Thursday, June 21, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

An additional $33,500 was approved for the local Franklin Architects to assess and design safer entrances at many of the district's schools where visitors now can openly access the school and its students without first encountering a front office or an adult. The plan would cost about $6,500 per school, said Superintendent Bryan Johnson.

"As someone who is new to the board and as someone who is a recent graduate of Hamilton County schools ... it has been shocking. ... I have been kind of appalled at the state of our schools," said District 8 school board member Tucker McClendon.

He added that the Hamilton County Commission bears the brunt of the blame for the condition of the schools.

"I don't think it's shame on us. I think some of our schools have been neglected. I think if we have a funding body that doesn't want to give us more funding for this, it's shame on them."

The district has not hired an outside firm to complete an external audit of its facilities since the 1990s, but last year it received $100 million in bond funds from the Hamilton County Commission to go toward capital projects and maintenance.

photo Hamilton County school board member Tucker McClendon wondered if the school district would be left holding the bag if state money dries up after the Board of Education approved a $3.3 million contract with Teach for America.

District leaders, including Johnson and facilities director Justin Wit, said Thursday the school system has already estimated another $200 million or more is needed in deferred maintenance costs.

"It has been staggering to come into this school system and see our facilities ... it is unbelievable," Johnson said. "I think to the point, we have only so many dollars ... and how we spend those dollars, we have to be very thoughtful about."

Thurman argued that the district didn't need external consultants to inform them about the state of the schools, because it has done that work before and those funds could be better used to actually fix problems.

"The price tag on this is staggering. ... We're spending $500,000 for someone from out of town to come in and tell us what we should already know," Thurman said. "I don't need someone to tell me what's wrong with Soddy-Daisy Middle. I know what's wrong with Soddy-Daisy Middle. Justin knows what's wrong with Soddy-Daisy Middle, because I call him all the time and tell him."

Joe Clark, business services consultant with MGT, said his Florida-based firm has worked with a number of cities and districts including in New Orleans, Nashville and Baltimore.

photo Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools Dr. Bryan Johnson talks about the system 21-years after the merger of city and county schools.

The firm plans to assess buildings on a variety of factors including physical conditions of the structures, HVAC systems, plumbing, technological readiness such as wireless access, broadband access, and how well set up the buildings and spaces are to facilitate educational goals and processes, such as the characteristics or equipment in a science lab versus a classroom.

Clark also assured the board that the company is an "objective third party player."

"The detail we are going to get into is going to generate a big number," he said of the results of the assessment, which is projected to be completed by the end of the fiscal year. "I've never met a district who has a big enough checkbook to address everything we find."

Board members hope to have preliminary reports going into the planning cycle for the 2020 budget next spring.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.