Land purchased by Catoosa County Schools draws criticism amid budget balancing for new fiscal year

Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / Photographed on Friday, a parcel of property in Ringgold, Georgia, was purchased by the Catoosa County Board of Education for a Ringgold Middle School football field or other future projects.
Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / Photographed on Friday, a parcel of property in Ringgold, Georgia, was purchased by the Catoosa County Board of Education for a Ringgold Middle School football field or other future projects.

Note: The story was updated July 31 to correct the day of a Board of Education meeting about the budget.

In the run-up to a new fiscal year school budget that's expected to include a school property tax increase and cuts at Catoosa County Public Schools, some taxpayers are criticizing school officials' decision to purchase land near the Ringgold High and Middle Schools educational complex in Ringgold, Georgia.

In November of last year, the parcel of land on Tennessee Street south of Ringgold Middle School's property was purchased by the school system for future projects, according to Chance Nix, school superintendent. Without acquiring the approximately seven acre property the education complex is landlocked, he said in an email.

"The Board of Education is committed to facility equitability, and RMS is the only secondary school that does not have its own football field," Nix said. "Their football players must practice at Ringgold High School when the high school athletes are not using the high school field, and they have even walked to the Board of Education Office to practice in the grass in front of our building."

There isn't a budget or timeline for the football field, he said, and it won't be used for middle school practice at this time. The property could also be used for classrooms if needed, he said, based on projected growth.

According to county records, the property was purchased by the county Board of Education for $790,000 in November. In August 2021, the same property was purchased by LJ Investment Holdings for $408,250.

Resident Mario Fernandes said taxpayers should be really upset about the increase in the property's price and thinks it should be investigated by the governor and district attorney. He said he thinks there are multiple conflicts of interests between local government officials and developers in Catoosa County and believes taxpayers are often over-paying for projects.

"It's an old buddy system," Fernandes said. "And that needs to stop."

In a phone call, Fernandes said he was also concerned there was no appraisal of the property before purchase. A letter from Renzo Wiggins, school district attorney, sourced by a citizen in a public records request, confirmed there was no appraisal conducted.

In 2019, the Walker County Messenger reported that Jerry Hawthorne spoke on behalf of LJ Investment Holdings at a Ringgold City Council meeting. He was identified as a local developer in the story, and at that meeting had a rezoning approved which allowed townhomes to be built near Old Mill Road and Battlefield Parkway.

Hawthorne is also a member of the Catoosa County Planning Board. He could not be reached for comment by phone for questions about improvements to the property.

In a resolution passed by the county's Board of Education a day before the property was bought, the purchase price was found to be reasonable because of its proximity to other school system properties and that there was extensive demolition, excavation and removal of structures and boulders on the property done after the previous sale.

Resident Kristen Noeller said she's worried about the new tax increase and thinks the money used to buy the land was wasted because the middle school could easily share the high school's field nearby.

"Is it ideal, and would those schools like to have their own? Absolutely," she said about plans for a middle school football field. "But not at that price."

It's time for taxpayers to start fine-picking the school system's budget, Noeller said, because citizens aren't being quiet anymore. She also questioned the dramatic increase in selling price over such a short period of time.

At a schools budget meeting July 18, Nix was asked about the property near the middle school and its purchase price.

"It was worth it," Nix said, because of its location adjacent to Ringgold High and Middle Schools.

When Fernandes criticized the purchase of the property near Ringgold Middle School at the meeting, Nix said he didn't know about any of the transactions before the school system bought it but everything was honest and aboveboard.

At that same meeting, resident George Battersby said it's horrible that the property wasn't purchased before it was bought by LJ Investment Holdings and the price was hiked. The Catoosa County resident also said he thinks the deal should be investigated.

In early July, the Catoosa County Board of Education announced it planned to maintain its millage rate of 15.040, rather than roll that rate back to hold school revenue from property taxes steady amid rising property values.

More revenue is needed for the school system, Nix said at the July 18 budget meeting, because of inflation and increases in insurance contributions required by the state.

Nix said the school system has reduced costs by combining and eliminating some administrative positions, cutting 17 literacy coach positions and reducing staff by attrition. Some other proposals include replacing out-of-state training with online training where possible and spending district reserves.

A financial task force to cut the budget further was established as well, he said.

The Catoosa County Board of Education is scheduled to vote on a recommendation for its fiscal year 2024 budget — and its millage rate — at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Another budget meeting is scheduled earlier in the day at 11 a.m.

Both meetings will be held at 307 Cleveland St. in Ringgold and are open to the public.

The Catoosa County Board of Commissioners makes the final decision on the school system's budget.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.

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