Hamilton County school board grapples with use for Gateway building, future of Soddy-Daisy schools

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Hamilton County Schools Deputy Superintendent Sonia Stewart and Superintendent Justin Robertson speak to a breakout group of teachers and staff at The Howard School on Oct. 26 during a community meeting about the school facilities plan.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Hamilton County Schools Deputy Superintendent Sonia Stewart and Superintendent Justin Robertson speak to a breakout group of teachers and staff at The Howard School on Oct. 26 during a community meeting about the school facilities plan.

Hamilton County school board members remain at an impasse on the future use of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's Golden Gateway site and how to address overcrowding at downtown schools.

The discussion was raised again Monday night at the second meeting about facilities in response to community feedback members gathered at a series of public meetings this fall.

The two-phase, seven-year plan calls for campus closures and renovations in the interest of lowering maintenance costs by having fewer buildings.

The plan is not final and is subject to the will of the school board, which is responsible for approving construction projects and zoning changes.

Some school board members said the Gateway building, 401 West M.L. King Blvd., would be a good place to relocate both Howard Connect Academy and the Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts to address overcrowding at The Howard School. (Howard Connect is a no-zone magnet middle school that shares a campus with Howard.)

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school board considers future of Gateway building, school overcrowding)

Others said just moving the Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts there would allow for additional middle school seats downtown, as well as expand fine arts and career and technical opportunities.

"We have an opportunity right now at a building that is maybe the most prominent location to double down on the arts that will have a generational impact in this county," Superintendent Justin Robertson said. "I see this as actually a way to invest more long term in the arts and also serve what we are hearing from the business community."

Robertson added there was a potential to do something unique by combining Howard Connect and Orchard Knob Middle. School Board Members Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountain, and Tiffanie Robinson, independent of Chattanooga, who currently or previously represented the area, both said this went against the community's desires.

"The reality is that to not put Howard Connect at Gateway feels very much like taking something away from the community," Robinson said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school facilities plan calls for consolidation to larger campuses, but at what cost?)

Part of the pushback against putting two separate entities into one building is because it takes away from the feeling of being one school, Board Member Ben Connor, D-Chattanooga, said.

"I think that we're standing in their way by hanging on to a name," he said. "If we open up seats and make it so that we are servicing the people of the area, the people of downtown, the people who have been underserved and forgotten about for so long, it's only one more good step for our community."

School board members also said the district needs to address the building needs at Howard in addition to the overcrowding issues.

The Gateway building sits on a prominent 11-acre campus off U.S. Highway 27 with a 182,000-square foot building. BlueCross has sold the property to the county for $10 million.

When Robertson and County Mayor Weston Wamp rolled out the facilities plan in August, the Gateway property was identified as a potential career and technical campus. When running for mayor in 2022, Wamp promoted the idea of bringing such a facility downtown, reminiscent of the old Kirkman Technical High School.


Growth

Regarding other aspects of the facilities plan, school board members raised concerns about whether the proposals to expand Thrasher Elementary and create a K-12 campus in Soddy-Daisy would accommodate the growth both areas are experiencing.

"I don't want to create a problem in Soddy-Daisy that the Southside is currently living with," Black said. "We have to come up with a plan that meets the needs of the communities that we serve. But I also, with the projected growth of Soddy-Daisy, don't want to participate in another one of those bad decisions that creates a problem that Soddy-Daisy is going to have to deal with in 15 years."

(READ MORE: Soddy-Daisy community considers how to retain students in response to school facilities plan)

School Board Member Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson, who represents the area, advocated for constructing a new building at Soddy Daisy Middle rather than relocating it to the campus Daisy Elementary and Soddy Daisy High share.

"I think putting another school up there on that hill, I think is going to be a major mistake," she said. "We don't have to have the Taj Mahal at Soddy Daisy Middle, just build us a decent school."

Other board members echoed the concerns raised at the Soddy-Daisy community meeting by parents who worried that having a combined middle-high school could make students from other middle schools that feed into Soddy Daisy High feel like outsiders.

Rebuilding trust

School Board Member Marco Perez, independent of Signal Mountain, said one of his takeaways from the community meeting at Brainerd High was that there was a lack of trust in the school board doing right by the community.

"We better follow through as a board on whatever we promise to do in that community so that we can rebuild trust and rebuild really a facility that is top of the line," Perez said.

The plan proposes moving Dalewood Middle students to an expanded Brainerd High campus to create a co-located middle-high school. School board members also were open to the idea of moving the Barger Academy of Fine Arts to the Dalewood campus to address maintenance needs there, as well as provide more pre-kindergarten seats.

The community wasn't opposed to co-locating the school, said Board Member Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, who represents the area.

School board members will talk again about creating their final facilities priorities at the December school board meeting before voting in January, Robertson said.

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

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