To help address what he called Hamilton County's biggest challenge, county Mayor Weston Wamp said Thursday he will push next year to build a vocational or technical high school in downtown Chattanooga where a new high school hasn't been built in more than 60 years.
Wamp, who has served on the Tennessee Board of Regents for the past three years, said the new school will "signal a new era" with a focus not just on college preparation but on career readiness.
"From fenders to finance and from health science to computer science, we want this to be an inspiring place of learning that will require a partnership with not only Chattanooga State (Community College) but also many of your businesses," Wamp said in a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club. "I think this will set a new standard, much like what we set yesterday when we announced the full funding for the Tyner Academy for the most expensive school this county has ever built."
Despite higher-than-expected costs, Wamp said Wednesday the county will reprioritize its budget to fund the new $96 million Tyner Academy. On Thursday, Wamp said a new downtown school could be financed, at least in part, through the kinds of special tax districts that have been approved on the Southside and will be considered next year for The Bend on the Westside. In such tax zones, the taxes generated by new development are redirected to pay for infrastructure and public improvements.
Chattanooga has reimagined its downtown during the lifetime of the 35-year-old county mayor with more than $1 billion of new investments in and around the central city since the Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992. But in that same period, the Kirkman Vocational Technical High School was closed and its site was converted to a baseball stadium and hotel development, while the former City High School was converted into two high schools: the Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts and the Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences.
"You have to go back to the 1960s since we built a new high school in downtown Chattanooga, and I would argue we are paying a price for that disinvestment," Wamp said. "Our greatest opportunity is to capture the moment to transform both the perception and the reality of public education in this county."
New downtown elementary schools were built in 2002 near the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus at the Tommie F. Brown Academy and on the Southside at the Battle Academy. But Wamp said more needs to be done in the central city and in career education, especially for students struggling with traditional college-bound courses and looking for other career options.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, who previously served on the county school board, said in a phone interview Thursday it would be nice to have a plan for building and renovating new schools, which he said is still being formed by a study group of school and county leaders.
"I would hope that he (Wamp) takes the lead of our school superintendent, and if this is what the superintendent thinks is the highest priority, then great," Baker said.
Wamp and his deputy mayor for education, former county school board Chairman Tucker McClendon, also pushed to buy a vacant office complex in East Brainerd for a new school and have proposed using the soon-to-be-vacated Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts on East Brainerd Road to help homeless families and students.
But in an interview after his speech, Wamp said he hopes the school system overall will still look to consolidate some of the 79 public schools across Hamilton County.
Wamp said the state is providing historically high levels of funding for education with Hamilton County projected to receive about $47 million more under the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement plan adopted by the legislature last year. Wamp praised Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson as "one of the best school superintendents in the history of this county."
Gov. Bill Lee, a former mechanical engineer who previously ran a home services and construction company in Williamson County that included on-site vocational training, is providing "extraordinary investments in technical education," Wamp said
"We want to capture the imagination of high school students and get them thinking about careers," he said. "We want to give them an opportunity beginning in the summer, and we hope it will expand into the school year to work while they go to school."
Wamp appealed to the business owners and managers at the Rotary Club.
"This could look like a co-op, it could look like an apprenticeship or it could look like an internship," he said. "But I need the corporate citizens and our small businesses to meet us at the water's edge to serve young people, particularly those who are lacking hope that we see in our community."