Stephanie Hopper figures she's driven 72,000 miles over the last five years shuttling her children back and forth from their Soddy-Daisy home to the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts. And by the time all her children finish there, she expects to have clocked more than 200,000 miles on the school commute.
But all that gas money and wear and tear are worth it, she says, because of the "priceless" education CSLA offers.
Hopper stood among some 100 parents and students who held signs and donned CSLA buttons, T-shirts and sweatshirts at Thursday's meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education. With one spokeswoman addressing the board, the crowd silently petitioned the board to replace the aging CSLA building on East Brainerd Road.
The new school is long overdue -- it is the only project from a 1999 school facilities plan that never got implemented. Officials have it on their most recent facilities plan, though that list holds several other projects also considered badly needed. No priorities have been set for new construction, though board Chairman Mike Evatt said members would consider their facility plan in the coming months.
The school opened as a magnet in 1992 after being shuttered for years. The building was originally erected in 1949. Now, it's prone to water leaks. It's riddled with windows that don't seal. It isn't handicap accessible, and it sits on a shifting foundation. Aside from its condition, the building's size doesn't allow it to fully serve all those who want to attend school there. The 387 students who go there are far overshadowed by the more than 1,000 that fill up waiting lists for kindergarten through eighth grade.
Preliminary estimates put the cost of a replacement CSLA at about $46 million. The new school, built on acreage at the current site, would expand from K-8 to K-12. Parents on Thursday stressed that the new school, estimated to hold at least 1,000 students, could help relieve overcrowding at other East Brainerd-area schools and buildings across the district.
"That would benefit everyone," Hopper said. "I don't think people are looking at the big picture."
While they've petitioned for years to get their new building, parents said Thursday's showing of support kicked off a lengthy effort of pressuring the county commission and the school board to fund and build the new school, which has been promised but not delivered for years.
"This is our way of saying we're here and we're not giving up," said Jessica Thomas, who has one child at CSLA and another who will attend there in a few years.
Thomas said the coalition of parents wants the board to request funding from the county for the school in July so that construction can begin some time in 2014.
"Quite frankly, the parents have really just had enough," she said.
Because of its magnet status, CSLA is left with no natural political advocate. It officially falls within the boundaries of District 8 on the County Commission and school board. But it draws students from across the county. So securing a new school building there may not be viewed as a political victory as large as a new zoned community school in a politician's backyard.
"Since CSLA serves smaller portions of the entire county, our voice is weakened," said Principal Krystal Scarbrough.
But board member David Testerman, who represents District 8, said he'll push for a new CSLA.
It's just that other projects, like a new Sale Creek Middle-High and a new Ganns Middle Valley Elementary may be equally deserving, he said. His daughter attended CSLA. And he formerly served as a principal at Ganns and Sale Creek. So Testerman says he's familiar with the physical problems and limitations of all three schools.
"We have to realize we need to do what's best for kids," he said. "We have tremendous needs across this county."