Hamilton County school facilities plan recommends renovations, school closures

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County officials announce a massive school facilities plan Thursday at Dupont Elementary School.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County officials announce a massive school facilities plan Thursday at Dupont Elementary School.

A school facilities plan released by a working group consisting of Hamilton County leaders includes recommendations calling for campus closures and renovations.

The recommendations, unveiled Thursday by Superintendent Justin Robertson and County Mayor Weston Wamp, are part of a two-phase, seven-year plan to update Hamilton County Schools' facilities. It would cost around $200 million.

Over the course of the plan, three new schools would be built, seven schools would be renovated or receive additions, six schools would be closed and three schools would move to new locations. Additional schools would also be modernized or expanded in the latter half of the plan to meet the district's growth and to prioritize efficiency.

"For too many years, I think we've avoided hard decisions in a way that's negatively impacted our kids," Robertson said in an interview. "Whether that's keeping them in a facility that's not adequate or not providing them the opportunities they deserve educationally. While this is a facilities plan, that piece of it increases educational opportunities."

(READ MORE: A breakdown on what the Hamilton County’s school facilities working group recommends for each school)

Formed last September, the seven-person working group met every two weeks in an effort to create a plan that tackles the nearly $1 billion in needed repairs across the school system. The group's guiding principles included modernizing school facilities, effectively and wisely using taxpayer dollars and proactively considering where growth is and isn't occurring.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County working group aims to address $1 billion school facilities 'crisis')

The plan is not final and hasn't been officially recommended to the Hamilton County school board, but Wamp does not expect it to require a tax increase. The board would have to vote on projects before any next steps could be taken, which Robertson hopes will start by early next year.

"We don't claim it as perfect, but we do believe that it will serve every student who'd be affected in a better way," Wamp said in an interview. "It will improve their educational outcomes."

The recommendations

Of those six potential school closures, some would be relocated, but others would permanently closed and students would be rezoned.

In the Hixson area, the plan proposes building a new elementary school on the current DuPont Elementary site, which would consolidate three of the four small area schools — Alpine Crest, DuPont, Hixson and Rivermont — onto one larger campus.

Clifton Hills Elementary would be closed and its students rezoned, while Soddy Daisy and Dalewood middle schools would be relocated to form schools with larger grade spans. The plan calls for an expansion of Daisy Elementary to create a K-12 experience on the site the school shares with Soddy Daisy High. Dalewood Middle students would join an expanded Brainerd High campus to create a co-located middle-high school.

The district does not have plans for what it would do with the closed school campuses, but Robertson said he would recommend retaining the properties for potential future district use or community partnerships.

(READ MORE: A breakdown on what the Hamilton County's school facilities working group recommends for each school)

Other school buildings would be expanded and renovated, including Eastside Elementary, East Lake Elementary, Thrasher Elementary and both Lookout Valley schools.

The second phase of the plan recommends that both the Center for Creative Arts and Normal Park Upper and Lower be relocated to increase the number of seats available at magnet schools. Two new campuses, on the former sites of Cigna and the BlueCross BlueShields' Gateway property, respectively, would also help serve students starting during the first phase.


Community impact

Among the goals of the facilities plan: competing with local private schools.

"I want people to think twice about where they're sending kids," Robertson said. "I think that this facilities move and being bold here helps us recruit — and not just recruit — but retain families."

Both Wamp and Robertson believe creating a K-12 experience in Soddy-Daisy, as well as other co-located middle-high schools, will attract families that otherwise would have sent their children to a private school where they could have that long-term school continuity.

"I believe if you execute on this, enrollment does go up," Wamp said. "I think there's a few private schools that would be right to feel threatened by that series of proposals because it puts the county school system in a posture to compete in athletics and in school facilities."

Improving athletic facilities is a secondary commitment in the plan. For instance, the Brainerd High renovation includes updating its athletic facilities.

County officials last fall attributed sports' lack of state championship success when compared to similar counties in part to poor athletic facilities. (Tyner Academy won the Class 2A football state championship a few months later, ending a 12-year drought of a public Hamilton County school winning a state football title.)

For families with mixed emotions about their school being closed or relocated, officials point toward the increase in educational opportunities and resources a newly renovated school would have, citing potential additions of art rooms and gymnasiums.

"I'm confident that every affected kid and family would be in a better place when this series of recommendations has been completed," Wamp said.

The changes will also create more efficiencies around transportation and support staff. Robertson clarified that no jobs are in jeopardy if the facilities plan is implemented.


Differences from the previous facilities report

The working group used recommendations from a previous March 2020 facilities report created by MGT Consulting Group as a baseline, but the new plan is significantly different as it takes local context into account, Robertson said.

He cited the community's criticisms of MGT's proposal for Brainerd High's campus as an example. The new plan expands and renovates Brainerd High's existing campus rather than relocating the school to Dalewood Middle.

"It's an investment in a community that, in the past, felt like it was not being invested in," Robertson said. "So a commitment here to see the legacy of Brainerd continue but also to make sure that the facilities match that strong legacy in the Brainerd community."

Community feedback will also be taken into consideration over the next few months.

"We just want to be open to whatever," said Board Member Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, who leads the board's facilities committee. "Not only what was shared with us in the past, but take what was shared with us in the past in community conversations and compare that and/or align it with what we hear in these conversations that we will have."

Some of the recommendations are similar to the MGT report, like the consolidation of the Hixson-area elementary schools, while other plans haven't been explored before, such as the K-12 Soddy-Daisy campus.

School and county officials ultimately hope the new facilities plan will create a principled and consistent approach that can be replicated in the future.

"We know that this is an issue that didn't happen overnight. It's developed over the course of really the 26-year history of Hamilton County Schools," Robertson said. "For us to address this efficiently, address it wisely, we had to have the courage and the initiative to put out bold recommendations."

Contact Shannon Coan at scoan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

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