Hamilton County working group aims to address $1 billion school facilities ‘crisis’

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/  Students walk through the halls of Tyner Academy.  Tyner Academy Principal Gerald Harris gave the Times Free Press a tour of the school's facilities on December 6, 2019.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Students walk through the halls of Tyner Academy. Tyner Academy Principal Gerald Harris gave the Times Free Press a tour of the school's facilities on December 6, 2019.

A new working group assembled by Hamilton County leaders will look to tackle $1 billion in needed repairs across the county school system, and one of its chief goals will be finding out how to finance that work with finite resources.

The seven-member panel, which includes County Mayor Weston Wamp and Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson, will likely begin meeting the first week of October and will convene regularly for several months.

"What I hope for is a funding strategy," one of the members, school board Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent from Chattanooga, said in a phone interview Thursday. "We know what the problems are. We've already got a playbook built, and I recognize that some people do and some people don't like the playbook.

"I'm sure the group will have ideas ... around where and what needs to be built as far as new schools go, but ultimately, I think that the real thing that we need to come out of this group is a funding strategy to make our billion-dollar facilities problem go away."


In 2018, the school board opted to hire MGT Consulting Group to complete an audit of the district's building and facility needs. Robinson said that resulted in a report detailing strategies for solving the system's deferred maintenance problems. It also included a focus on the types of schools officials needed to build next, she said, and where they should prioritize that work based on population growth.

"At this point, we've only been able to do a very small portion of that strategy," Robinson said, which has included funding for a new Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, a new Howard Middle School, a new Tyner Middle/High School and an addition to Snow Hill Elementary School.

Tucker McClendon, the deputy county mayor of education and workforce development, recently stepped down as chairman of the Board of Education and said in a phone interview Thursday that the county is in a facilities crisis.

"We saw that with (Tyner Academy), where we literally had part of the building condemned and students did a walkout," he said.

Another facility, the Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts, was in a 100-year-old building that was no longer suitable for students, McClendon said. It's an issue playing out across the district.

"It's in every single part of this county that we have buildings approaching 50 years of age and for decades have not been maintained, and so it's gotten to the point where it's bubbled up to be a crisis," McClendon added. "If we don't do something to correct it, it's going to be bad."

The panel will strive to come up with a proactive approach to addressing the problem, McClendon said. McClendon said the county will have to get creative about solutions, citing, for example, work already underway on a new Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts. Some students are already in the new building.

The project, which McClendon approximated at under $40 million, will ultimately serve 1,000 K-12 students in a 142,000-square-foot-facility at the former Lakeside Elementary School. Crews are remodeling the existing building and adding onto it.

"This working group will come up with what they see as solutions," McClendon said. "The most critical part of this is funding, and I think there's different ways that they could go about it."

Newly elected County Commissioner Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd, has also been appointed to the board. He wants to come up with reasonable solutions to the county's short-term problems and develop a long-term plan that would be agreeable to members of the Hamilton County Commission, the school board and the community.

"I think we've done the best we could up to this point," Helton said by phone. "The problem is, we have infinite needs and we have finite resources, and we're just going to have to find a way to make things work."

Asked by the Chattanooga Times Free Press if the slate of options includes a tax increase, Helton said that would be an absolute last resort.

"I don't even think that option at this moment is on the table," Helton said. "It's not been discussed. What we're going to do is drill down and actually address what the needs are and the wants. I think people confuse needs and wants oftentimes, and so as a group my hope is that we sort those things out: The things we absolutely have to have, the things we'd like to have and prioritize them. The last thing I want to do is even broach the subject of increasing revenue."

Hamilton County Schools Chief Operations Officer Robert Sharpe said by email that one topic of discussion will be identifying possible funding sources for facilities improvements. Solutions would ultimately require approval from the County Commission and the Board of Education.

"It would be premature to discuss any potential funding sources until the working group has a chance to review needs and discuss potential paths forward for addressing the facilities challenges facing our school district," Sharpe said, responding to a question about whether a tax increase was possible.

Sharpe said the group will begin by reviewing the facilities study completed by MGT Consulting Group.

"One of the highest priorities on that list was Tyner Academy, which is currently out for bid with a projected groundbreaking later this year," Sharpe said. "The other projects listed in that study as being the highest priorities will likely form the starting point for discussions of priorities for the working group."

Kenny Smith is a former chairman of the Hamilton County school board and served on the panel from 2006 to 2010. He's another member of the new working group.

"I think there was still a level of urgency, and some of those buildings still haven't been addressed yet," he said by phone, recalling conversations about school maintenance needs during his tenure on the board. "We talked at the time about combining certain schools, some with lower populations, and making better use of our buildings."

"It's always been an issue and a necessity," he added. "(We) just haven't been able to get it done. It's expensive, but that's the cost of taking care of buildings."

During that time Smith was also the training director for the Chattanooga Electrical Apprenticeship program and has for a long time advocated for a career and technical high school. Kirkman Technical High School closed in 1991.

"I hope to see us start on it quickly," he said about the working group. "We have some schools that are in really bad shape and technologically behind. It's just something that's been needed for a while, and Mayor Wamp is passionate about this. He's passionate about bringing these schools to a standard, and he's passionate about having a career and college path high school together."

The seven members facilities working group are:

• Weston Wamp, Hamilton County mayor

• Justin Robertson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools

• Tiffanie Robinson, school board chairwoman, local entrepreneur and founder of Second Story Real Estate Management

• Lee Helton, Hamilton County commissioner, owner of Lee Helton Construction

• Kenny Smith, former school board chairman, retired director of the Chattanooga Electrical Apprenticeship

• Kyle Bryant, CPA, managing partner of accounting firm Market Street Partners

• Jay Price, Chattanooga State men's basketball coach, Brainerd High School alumnus

Reporter Carmen Nesbitt contributed to this story.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

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