School rezoning discussions ahead for Brainerd and East Ridge areas

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / East Brainerd Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. The school was rebuilt after being badly damaged in a tornado.

Some Brainerd and East Ridge-area students may soon be assigned to new neighborhood campuses as Hamilton County school officials consider rezoning to relieve overcrowding in some classrooms.

School officials discussed the anticipated changes during a recent retreat held by the Board of Education.

"The conversation today is really a first step into looking at some areas that we've got some work to do in terms of utilization, overcrowding just some long-term planning," Superintendent Justin Robertson told board members.

In particular, there are three schools on East Brainerd Road that pose overpopulation difficulties, Robertson said. Those schools are Apison Elementary School at 99.8% of capacity, East Brainerd Elementary School at 106% of capacity and Westview Elementary School at 112% of capacity.

In October, the school board approved the long-awaited  purchase of the former Cigna Corp. facility at 7555 Goodwin Road as part of the solution to what Robertson called "the East Brainerd Road conundrum."

The purchase included about 19 acres and a 100,000-square-foot building that officials will transform into a new school to free up space at East Brainerd Elementary, which sits across the street. It will have the capacity for 750 students.

But Robertson said the Cigna building is just a Band-Aid on a much larger problem.

"(Cigna) is a temporary solution that will give us some relief, most likely in about two years," Robertson said.

No official rezoning scenarios are yet on the table, but the board will review proposals during a facilities committee meeting Nov. 28.

Following the meeting, officials will host a series of community input sessions. A formal vote on the rezoning will likely occur in January or February.

Robertson said the East Ridge area is projected to have considerable population growth in coming years, which is why it is a focus for the district.

But some board members said they're more concerned about The Howard School -- the most overcrowded school. According to district data, the school currently has 1,542 students with a capacity of 854.

"The (school) that just slaps me in the face is Howard at 180%," board member Gary Kuehn, R-Ooltewah, said.

Board member Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountian, asked if the district could rezone in a way that might shift some Howard students toward East Ridge.

"There's not a singular solution that will fix the overcrowding at Howard," Robertson said.

The majority of Howard School students are concentrated in neighborhoods located in Ridgedale, the south end of Highland Park north of Interstate 24 and East Lake south of the interstate. These neighborhoods border areas zoned for East Ridge High and Brainerd High.

East Ridge High is at 99% of capacity. And while Brainerd High is under capacity at 58%, pulling from the most concentrated Howard School neighborhoods would cause extremely long bus rides, Robertson said.

While the district is exploring possible rezoning scenarios for Howard, Robertson said given the location of its students, the solution will take many tough conversations and multiple approaches. The board may even have to consider building a second high school in the area.

"The rezone conversation is really important because when rezoning doesn't work, what do you do?" board Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent of Chattanooga, said Friday.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson, said the board can't forget about the needs of other schools.

"We can't disregard all the other schools in the district," Thurman said Friday. "We cannot put every bit of money we have into downtown because, trust me, Soddy Daisy Middle School has snakes in it, and it's growing out there, too."

Roberston agreed and reiterated that there will be some difficult and complicated conversations ahead.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.