Opinion: Delay in gym approval would have been prudent step for Hamilton County Board of Education to make

Staff File Photo by Olivia Ross / The Hamilton County Board of Education approved the addition of a new multipurpose building/gym at Rivermont Elementary School, seen here in 2022, despite the school's inclusion on a list of facilities that could be closed.

If the people are paying attention, they may wonder about the wisdom of building a new gymnasium at a school which could be scheduled for closure in the near future.

It's certainly a conundrum.

The Hamilton County Commission allocated $1.5 million for a new gymnasium at Rivermont Elementary School on July 20, 2022, as part of nearly $30 million in federal money it approved as part of the more than $71 million allotted to the county through the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in 2021.

Nothing happened on the gym until the school wound up on the potential chopping list in a plan formulated by a school facilities working group. Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp established the group to evaluate school facility needs after he took office last September. The plan was announced last month.

One proposal in the plan would close four elementary schools — Alpine Crest, Dupont, Hixson and Rivermont — and build one larger school on the Dupont site. The Rivermont site would be sold or held for later use.

The proposal brought howls of protest from supporters of Alpine Crest Elementary, who want the small, non-ADA-compliant neighborhood school kept. Soon thereafter the Rivermont gym approval appeared on the school board agenda.

Meanwhile, a series of public meetings around the county was set to discuss the facilities working group's proposals, with a final plan expected to be submitted toward the end of the year.

But, suddenly, here was the Rivermont gym proposal, with a bid that was $200,000-plus more than than the $1.5 million allocated, and by an 8-2 vote school board members decided to go ahead with the plans, with the thought being that $200,000 in savings might be found.

The rationale of some members was that it was not fair to penalize Rivermont students who might use the gym even for a short time before the school was closed. To us, especially with the glacial speed at which school facilities are constructed, that doesn't sound like a wise and efficient use of our tax dollars.

We would have preferred the board follow the lead of members Rhonda Thurman and Faye Robinson, who thought the project should be delayed for the few months before a final school facilities plan is submitted. If Rivermont is to be spared in that plan, proceed with the gym. If not, re-allocate the money to something the school could use now and doesn't have to wait years to have.

We don't buy the argument the gym could be used as a multipurpose building for the community if the school is razed because that assumes the property will be retained. If it is not, having such a building on the property would hinder, not help, a sale because a buyer would have to pay to have it torn down if it did not fit exactly what the buyer was looking for.

Some people also may wonder if the board proceeded with the decision because American Rescue Plans funds had to be allocated toward a specific project, say, by the end of the year. Our understanding is that both the allocation of the funds and the spending of them do not have such immediate deadlines.

The same county commission that voted to spend money for the Rivermont gym in 2022 also voted up to $75,000 for fire code upgrades at Alpine Crest Elementary and up to $45,000 in playground renovations and equipment for Dupont Elementary, both schools that could be shuttered. Both of those projects, according to district schools spokesman Steve Doremus, are complete.

One also wonders how much, if anything, the Rivermont approval plays into the ongoing difficulties between Wamp and Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe. Three of the schools — including Rivermont — are in Sharpe's district, while Wamp sat on the school facilities task force. So did school board member Tiffanie Robinson, who voted to go ahead with the gym.

If nothing else, the decision will add to the considerations — such as the Red Bank Commission last week opposing the closing of the elementaries in the city — when the facilities working group makes its final proposal to the public later this year.