Updated facilities report reflects community feedback, Hamilton County school board says

Fewer Hamilton County public schools to be closed under updated facilities recommendations

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Amy Slagle, the physical education teacher at Barger Academy, works with students in the cafeteria at Barger Academy Thursday, December 5, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The cafeteria also serves as the gym and auditorium.
Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Amy Slagle, the physical education teacher at Barger Academy, works with students in the cafeteria at Barger Academy Thursday, December 5, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The cafeteria also serves as the gym and auditorium.

Hamilton County school board members reviewed updated recommendations for the district's facilities from the outside firm MGT Consulting Group on Monday evening.

The updated, but still preliminary, report recommends a different option than the one first presented in July and decreases the number of schools to be closed as well as reduces the sizes of some schools from what was suggested in the first version of the report.

Dan Schmidt, director of MGT's Education Consulting Group, said the new version was informed by some of the main themes the group heard during December's community forums, including the desire to keep neighborhood schools, preserve small schools and ensuring that any changes focus on keeping or increasing academic excellence.

The new version also directly addresses five main concerns from the community, including keeping a neighborhood school in the Brainerd area, not turning Lookout Valley Middle/High into a K-12 school and preserving the district's arts programs, among others.

Instead of closing 15 schools, MGT now recommends closing 11 school buildings: Alpine Crest Elementary, Clifton Hills Elementary, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences (CSAS), Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA), the Dawn Program, Lakeside Academy, Normal Park Museum Magnet (both upper and lower schools), Rivermont Elementary, Soddy-Daisy Middle and Tyner Middle.

Lookout Mountain Elementary and Barger Academy of Fine Arts, which were slated to be closed under the first set of recommendations, instead would receive renovations or be repurposed.

Students from Clifton Hills Elementary would be rezoned to existing elementary schools or a new school built in the area, and Rivermont students still would go to a new DuPont Elementary building.

The initial preliminary report identified more than $1.36 billion in capital needs across the district's 74 schools and recommended an $855 million plan that included renovating 11 schools, adding to 10 schools, building new buildings for three schools, and closing 15 school buildings.

The new plan, which focuses on "maximizing efficiency and effectiveness," instead proposes an $869 million renovation plan.

Other substantial changes in the new set of recommendations include:

- Moving Brainerd High School students to a new building at the current Dalewood Middle School site in order to keep a school in the Brainerd area.

- Combining Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts (CCA) and Barger Academy in a new, 1,300-student K-12 building at Brainerd High's current location.

- Rezoning students from The Howard School to increase student enrollment and optimize capacity at Lookout Valley Middle/High School.

- Renovating Lookout Valley Elementary and Lookout Mountain Elementary, allowing them to remain open.

- Moving Normal Park Museum Magnet's upper and lower schools into CCA's current space (after renovations).

- Combining Tyner Middle and Tyner High into a new building on Tyner High's site, serving grades 6-12.

- Tearing down and rebuilding DuPont Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle.

- Building a new vocational building on Barger Academy's current site (briefly discussed in the original recommendations), but keeping Hamilton County High and Sequoyah High in order to keep regional vocational programs and increase access across the district.

The new set of recommendations also does not offer a solution for CSAS or CSLA, which MGT originally recommended moving into new or renovated spaces at Brainerd High to create a "magnet corridor."

In the updated set of recommendations given to the school board initially last Friday, the locations for both CSAS and CSLA remained "TBD [to be determined]."

"So we've got TBD there for CSAS and a new or repurposed building for CSLA, frankly quite a bit as a placeholder," Schmidt said when asked about the schools by school board member Steve Highlander, of District 9. "There are some conversations the district has ongoing on that aren't really ready to be discussed publicly that we are trying to capture in this moment."

Board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 5, represents CSAS and said she was not aware of such plans and they had not been discussed with the board, though representatives from CSLA have been in talks with district officials in recent months about a resolution for the school's aging building.

Some school board members met one-on-one with MGT representatives and Superintendent Bryan Johnson Monday afternoon before publicly revealing the new set of recommendations during its 5 p.m. work session, though board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, said she felt "in the dark" about much of the process so far.

"This board is as much in the dark on a lot of this stuff as anybody," Thurman said. "A lot of this stuff I don't know until we get a facilities update. This board really hasn't had much discussion about this."

The board hired MGT in December 2018 to conduct an audit of the district's buildings and their maintenance needs. In addition to that $337,915 contract, it also paid $149,930 for MGT to conduct a study to predict future growth and capacity needs.

The first set of recommendations was unveiled last July to the school board and the Hamilton County Commission at the tail end of the budget season. Though many community leaders were not shocked by the staggering price tag of the district's deferred maintenance, community members came out passionately against many of the recommendations in a round of community meetings held in December.

Board members didn't have much to say about the report during Monday's work session, apart from some concerns about how the community meetings were held last month.

Board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, asked both Schmidt and Johnson if MGT's upcoming community forums on Jan. 28 and 29 would look different.

"These community meetings were very difficult for our community. I think our community didn't feel heard, though I think the resulting Plan C will reflect that you all were listening," Hill said.

Johnson confirmed that the district's engagement team would be more involved in the next round of meetings, which will include a shorter presentation and small-group discussions.

"There will be less talking and more hands-on feedback, facilitated opportunities for conversation," Johnson said.

Robinson did say she was encouraged by the changes in the recommendation when thinking about community feedback.

"I do think your new recommendations do show that the louder your voices, the greater the opportunity for change," Robinson said. "There are schools on here that there are new ideas for that I think are reflected by the crowds at the meetings."

Schmidt said during a news conference that he has heard encouraging feedback from board members and district officials.

"So far what I've heard is an appreciation that Option C appears to be responsive to what we heard from the community in response to Option B," Schmidt said. "That we are getting close, that we are not quite there, but I think there is an optimistic perspective that we will get there."

MGT will hold another round of targeted focus groups and two more community meetings later this month, along with three zoning meetings the district has on its plate. The district will also launch a second survey on Tuesday, according to district officials.

The consulting group is expected to present a final report and list of recommendations to the board in March.

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

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