Hamilton County school board members agree something needs to be done about the newly condemned bleachers at Tyner Academy and The Howard School.
But what they debated during Thursday night's work session was whether to accept discretionary funds from the County Commission to pay for new bathrooms and a concession stand at East Hamilton High School's stadium.
That came after Justin Witt, director of maintenance and operations for the school system, told them the structural engineer hired to inspect six aging stadiums across the district had completed his report.
"Some good news and maybe some bad news," Witt said.
The good news is that the stadiums at Ooltewah, Lookout Valley and Hixson high schools and Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences need minor repairs, but are basically sound. He said he will get bids on the needed repairs and make recommendations to the board.
Witt said steel and aluminum in the structures are too old and deteriorated to be safe, and he couldn't immediately say how much demolition will cost.
Then, within moments, board members began discussing whether to accept discretionary funds from the County Commission for new bathrooms and a concession stand at East Hamilton Middle High School.
Chairman Jonathan Welch asked the board to consider whether accepting money for that purpose was appropriate, especially in light of the report.
"Personally, I have a hard time saying yes, I can support it, when we have needs that are much more basic," Welch said. "When we have true safety needs we have to ask the question if this is what we want to do."
School board member Greg Martin was quick to defend District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley, who is using $34,000 of current discretionary money along with $60,000 from last year's discretionary bond fund to help pay for the restrooms and concession stands.
The commissioners' annual $100,000 discretionary funds came from bonds in last year's budget, and could only be spent on long-lasting capital projects such as buildings or other permanent construction.
This year, Mayor Jim Coppinger omitted the discretionary funds, saying the county couldn't afford it. Commissioners added the money back in from the county's rainy day fund to the general fund and overrode Coppinger's veto of the budget. Then the state comptroller told commissioners they can't spend county general fund money on schools, whose money comes from a separate budget.
District 5 Commissioner Greg Beck still had discretionary money left from the bond fund, so Smedley made a swap with him last month, putting $34,000 of this year's discretionary funds in his account and getting back $34,000 in discretionary bond funds that can be used on school projects.
Tyner High School is in Beck's district, but the swap means Beck won't have that discretionary bond money to help Tyner with the stadium.
Martin said it doesn't make sense "to stick [the County Commission] in the eye."
"They're not asking us to house a pink unicorn at the field," Martin said. "They're asking us to do something that is needed there."
Welch said his main concern is that the community will question why Tyner's bleachers are being condemned while East Hamilton is getting brand-new bathrooms. He said the school board's priorities do not always need to align with the commissioners'.
Board member Joe Galloway said he didn't want to turn down the money, but wondered if the board could suggest the commissioners spend it on something the board saw as a more pressing priority.
"Maybe [the County Commission] doesn't realize what some of these other needs are?" Galloway asked.
Neither Karitsa Mosley who represents Tyner, nor Donna Horn, who represents East Hamilton, were present Thursday night. The school board will vote next week whether to accept the funds.
Welch reminded the board that though these discussions need to happen, this was time not spent discussing student achievement, which he hopes is always the board's focus.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on twitter @kendi_and
A previous version of this story incorrectly said school board members voted to accept Sabrena Turner-Smedley's discretionary money for East Hamilton Middle High School. In fact, such a vote has not yet taken place. The Times Free Press regrets the error.