Hamilton County school board members advanced a plan Thursday to build a new multipurpose building at Rivermont Elementary — one of six schools targeted for closure in a district facilities plan released last month.
The board voted 8-2 to approve the $1.7 million construction bid. Board members Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson, and Faye Robinson, R-Ooltewah, voted no. Board member Larry Grohn, R-East Ridge, was not present.
In August, a Hamilton County working group released a two-phase, seven-year facilities plan that called for campus closures and renovations in the interest of lowering maintenance costs by having fewer buildings.
Among other recommendations, the plan proposed the building of a new elementary school on the current DuPont Elementary site in Hixson, consolidating three out of four smaller schools in the area — Alpine Crest, DuPont, Hixson and Rivermont — onto one larger campus.
Board member Ben Connor, D-Chattanooga, whose district includes Rivermont, said he was not willing to abandon schools because of a proposal.
"I'm not going to vote against the safety and the needs and the hopes of the current students at Rivermont," he said. "I won't be the elected official who tells a whole generation of Rivermont students: 'You don't get to have the gym you were promised because the next group of kids might, might get a newer building.'"
Rivermont Elementary does not have a gym.
The multipurpose building could continue to be used by the community in the future, several board members said. The facility would add value to the property for whatever the school board ultimately decides, said board member Tiffanie Robinson, an independent from Chattanooga.
"It's still going to impact the people of the county," said board member Marco Perez, an independent from Signal Mountain. "I don't think it's a loss."
The money for the new gym was allocated by the Hamilton County Commission in July 2022 from federal funds the county received through the American Rescue Plan Act, a stimulus package passed by Democrats in Congress in 2021 to help the economy through the pandemic.
The commission allocated $1.5 million to the project. The school board approved a $1.727 million bid from Wilder Contracting, a Chattanooga-based construction company.
Officials feel confident the project will come in under budget, Robert Sharpe, the district's chief operations officer, said.
Thurman said she'd prefer to table the conversation so that the County Commission could re-evaluate the use of the funds. Because the money was allocated by the commission, the school board does not have the authority to redirect the money to another project.
"I just don't think that it's wise to put that kind of money into a building we may not be using in a few years," she said.
Board member Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, said it was important to respect the will of the County Commision.
"In the meantime, these children have nowhere to get together," she said.