Opinion: Hamilton County Schools construction plan offers a workable strategy to modernize school facilities across the district

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Dalewood Middle School would be closed in the future and its students relocated to a middle school annex at Brainerd High School if the recommendations of a school facilities working group are followed.
Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Dalewood Middle School would be closed in the future and its students relocated to a middle school annex at Brainerd High School if the recommendations of a school facilities working group are followed.

A Hamilton County Schools facilities working group has submitted a sensible, three-year, first phase of recommendations that calls for the closing of six schools, the building of one from the ground up, the modernization and expansion of several others, and, importantly, the efficient and wise use of taxpayer dollars throughout.

Now it's the public's turn.

The working group's recommendations were revealed Thursday at a news conference at DuPont Elementary School, which is the site for a planned new school that would combine four current elementaries, Alpine Crest, DuPont, Hixson and Rivermont.

"For too many years we've avoided the hard decisions ... that have negatively impacted our kids," Hamilton County Superintendent Dr. Justin Robertson told Times Free Press editors and reporters Wednesday.

The county, according to the superintendent, has 81 facilities.

"For our size," said Robertson, "it's clear that's too many."

The plan incorporates aspects of the 10-year facilities master plan requested by the Hamilton County Board of Education and submitted by MGT Consulting Group in July 2019. A revised plan by MGT was submitted in March 2020, the same month the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person schooling for the rest of the year.

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

The facilities working group, implemented by Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp shortly after he came into office last September, is the needed resumption of the discussion on school facilities.

(A second facilities phase in years four through seven would expand magnet seats, prioritize efficiencies, modernize older schools and plan for new growth.)

Among the other recommendations in phase one are combining two middle schools with their feeder high schools — Soddy-Daisy Middle School by greatly expanding Daisy Elementary School, which is adjacent to Soddy-Daisy High School, and the underutilized Dalewood Middle School by expanding and renovating underutilized Brainerd High School.

MGT proposals had Soddy-Daisy Middle School moving to Daisy Elementary but Daisy Elementary students merging with students at Soddy Elementary. Another MGT proposal first had Brainerd students being distributed to Tyner, Howard and East Ridge high schools, allowing the expansive campus to be used for another school, and, in the revised version, had Brainerd moving to Dalewood's facility and Dalewood students merging with students at Orchard Knob Middle.

The new Brainerd plan — suggested by facilities working group member Jay Price, a former Brainerd basketball star and current employee of the Hamilton County district attorney's office — allows us "to invest in the Brainerd community," Robertson said. Before, "they felt like they were not being invested in."

The plan involving Brainerd provides "continuity in a kid going from eighth or ninth grade on the same campus," Wamp said Wednesday. He said it also should positively affect the school's proud athletics tradition.

Other plans suggest the closing of Clifton Hills Elementary and the shift of its students to Eastside Elementary and East Lake Elementary schools, both of which would be expanded, rather than building a new school as the MGT plan had recommended; the expansion of Thrasher Elementary on Signal Mountain to keep up with current growth; and the renovation of Lookout Valley schools, where the county also is experiencing growth.

Already somewhat in the pipeline are the renovation of the recently acquired East Brainerd Cigna campus, which would be an expansion of nearby East Brainerd Elementary, and the creation of a new school emphasizing career and technical education on the newly purchased BlueCross BlueShield site off West M.L. King Boulevard.

The above plans, covering some $200 million in work, would be bonded out by the county in a plan that Wamp does not expect would require a tax increase.

Robertson said it took courage to face the facilities issues but that the seven-person group did so with a "principled, consistent approach." Now, he said, the school board will need to have the courage to embrace the recommendations or use the flexibility he said is there to make changes in the plans.

"We'd be naive to think [something in the plan] isn't going to shift," he said.

The public will have its say through school board meetings, and perhaps elsewhere, but Wamp and Robertson are hoping for an aggressive timeline, one that would have the bond measure (including an already budgeted amount for school deferred maintenance) completed this fall and the school board voting to begin on specific projects late this year or early next year.

The facilities group intentionally did not prioritize the projects, but said the three-year plan, if successfully executed, would be a "road map" for phase two.

We think this plan is eminently workable, includes the "local context" that Robertson said was missing from some of the MGT recommendations and offers the efficient use of taxpayer dollars that should always be near the top of every discussion about school facilities.

While some changes are bound to be made, we believe this is a significant step to right-sizing the district and providing students across the county more and better education opportunities.