Hamilton County school board members express concerns about new school facilities plan

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson, with school board and county officials in the background, speaks about the county's new schools facilities plan at an event at DuPont Elementary School on Aug. 17.

Members of the Hamilton County school board expressed their concerns and emphasized the school facilities plan released last month was just a starting point at a meeting this week.

It was the board's first discussion about facilities since a working group released its two-phase, seven-year plan to update Hamilton County Schools' facilities. The plan recommends building three schools, renovating or adding on to seven, closing six and moving three schools.

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.

"We need to hear from the community. I know people have concerns and great ideas," board member Joe Smith, R-Hixson, said Thursday night. "We're going to have to make some hard decisions, and not everyone is going to be pleased. Change is hard."

The Hamilton County school board has to approve construction projects and zoning changes.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school facilities plan recommends renovations, school closures)

Board member Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson, said she felt blindsided by the plan, as the recommendations for her district were different from what she had previously talked with others about. The plan proposes expanding Daisy Elementary and closing Soddy Daisy Middle to create a K-12 experience on the current shared campus of Daisy Elementary and Soddy Daisy High.

She raised concerns about traffic and parking, as well as elementary students sharing a campus with older students. One goal of the facilities plan is to cut back on maintenance costs by having fewer schools.

"I know we're only going to have a finite amount of money to do these schools, and I know we're going to try to check a lot of things off," Thurman said. "But I am not going to sacrifice the residents of Soddy-Daisy at the altar of this chicken and box so we can get a lot of things done."

Board member Ben Connor, D-Chattanooga, said the plan's recommendation of closing two elementary schools in his district — Alpine Crest and Rivermont — was the "biggest pill to swallow." Late last month, he hosted a community town hall where around 100 parents, teachers and students gathered hoping to prevent the closure of Alpine Crest Elementary.

"Until this board votes to close a school, change a school or do something else, I'm going to act like that school and those students need everything they deserve," Connor said.

(READ MORE: Parents at Red Bank town hall seek to protect elementary school from potential closure)

Board member Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountain, said she'd heard from a lot of community members who were against creating large elementary schools. She emphasized the need to find a balance between financial needs and what is best for students and educators.

"As much as we love our very, very, very small schools and we love the environment that provides for our children, I think we have to acknowledge that we don't live in a community that is willing to pay for those very small schools," Black said. "We haven't for a long time, which is how we got to this discussion."

Both Thurman and board member Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, said they felt disrespected by being excluded from the process of creating the facilities plan. Board Chair Tiffanie Robinson, an independent from Chattanooga, was the only member of the school board on the working group.

Jones pointed to the fact that her facilities chair counterpart on the County Commission was included in the working group when she wasn't.

"I too felt very disrespected in the process as a board member and as facilities chair," Jones said. "What I know is very distasteful about all of this, to a lot of us, is that this was given to us, from some individual standpoints, as 'Oh yeah, well this is really great. Let's do it,' without knowing what we hear on a daily basis from constituents across this district."

Superintendent Justin Robertson said Jones' exclusion from the working group was not a matter of disrespect, rather she serves a different role than the County Commission's facilities chair.

"You've got to now lead this body in a discussion," Robertson told Jones.

"So, I've got to clean up the mess y'all made," she responded.

"If that's how you want to put it," Robertson said. "But if you were on this committee and the recommendations came out and you were part of it, you couldn't effectively lead this committee."

Black called it a gross oversight that there was nothing in the plan to address the overcrowding at The Howard School. Howard is the largest school in the district with 1,520 students. The building's capacity is 854 students.

Feedback Schedule

The school board released a tentative schedule for community members to share feedback on the facilities plan. Dates and details may change. The meetings will be livestreamed.

— Sept. 28: District 11 will host a meeting from 6-7:45 p.m. in East Lake Academy's cafeteria.

— Oct. 3: About the proposed consolidated Hixson area elementary school from 6-7:45 p.m. The location has not been announced.

— Oct. 4: About the proposed renovations at the BlueCross BlueShield Gateway property from 6-7:45 p.m. The location has not been announced.

— Oct. 17: About the expansion of Brainerd High from 6-7:45 p.m. The location has not been announced.

— Oct. 24: About the proposals affecting Soddy-Daisy from 6-7:45 p.m at Soddy Daisy High.

Meetings for District 2 and The Howard School will be announced in the future.

Board member Ben Connor will independently host a meeting at 6 p.m. Oct. 2 at Rivermont Elementary.

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