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An electronic sign stands in front of the East Ridge Middle School.
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Brent Lambert
polls here 2993

East Ridge can now create its own school district, separate from Hamilton County's, thanks to a change in the city's charter that voters approved last Tuesday by a 2-to-1 margin.

Charter Amendment No. 4 may have been the most talked-about item on the city's ballot -- but talk is all it is, so far.

Tennessee law was revised in 2012 to let municipalities establish their own school systems. The effort was driven by mostly white suburbs around Memphis that fought hard to establish their own schools so they wouldn't be absorbed into Memphis' mostly black, academically failing schools.

There's no such dynamic in East Ridge, where the student population is roughly half white, a quarter black and a quarter Latino, according to Hamilton County Department of Education enrollment figures.

East Ridge city officials put the proposal and three other amendments on the ballot because the city was cleaning up its charter anyway, city attorney Hal North said. No one is advocating for -- or against -- East Ridge having its own school system, he said. But this way, North said, the option is there if city officials ever want to pursue a city school system.

"Everyone's neutral at this point," said North, whose idea it was to put the school charter amendment before voters. "It was my suggestion. Might as well go ahead and do it now."

East Ridge hired North as its attorney almost two years ago, just before the council accepted the resignation of controversial city manager Tim Gobble. City officials decided the charter had to be amended partly because it said any manager the city hired had to have a bachelor's degree in public administration.

"Just a handful of schools in the country had that degree program," North said. "We started working on [charter amendments] two years ago."

Mayor Brent Lambert said East Ridge residents are talking about the charter amendment that would allow city schools -- but no one is advocating for the city to launch its own school system.

"That's the one that I have heard the most chatter about," Lambert said. "There's nothing on the table right now. It does open the door to that possibility down the road."

"What would be the cost? What would be the benefits?" he asked. "That would be something that we would really have to look at."

"We don't know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing," Lambert said. "We have not conducted a study."

He did say that the city has an issue with the lack of art instruction in county elementary schools. It's only funded in a few schools, using federal Title I funds.

The city allocated $5,000 each to help pay for art at East Ridge and Spring Creek elementary schools, he said.

"The county does not provide art for the elementary schools," he said. "The city has chipped in with some money to help pay for art teachers."

Neither Lambert nor Gary Waters, assistant superintendent in charge of facilities for the Hamilton County Department of Education, could say whether East Ridge would have to buy -- or be given -- school buildings from the county, if East Ridge created its own school system.

"I have no earthly idea," Waters said. "We have had absolutely zero discussion on this."

"I was actually kind of amazed they would even consider it," Waters said. "I just can't imagine a city that seems to be pretty cash-strapped ... wanting to take on the responsibility of running a school system."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com, www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu, twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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