Talk of new school construction and low-performing schools dominated the Hamilton County Board of Education's meeting Thursday night, and the deadly Nov. 21 bus crash and news of Signal Mountain and Red Bank considering the launch of separate school districts was not discussed.
Both municipalities plan to seat committees to research the feasibility of starting separate school districts, and East Ridge and Soddy-Daisy are considering doing the same in coming weeks. The move would take money away from the county school system and likely create a legal battle over the school buildings, but the board avoided the topic Thursday.
Instead, board members focused on two other urgent issues facing the school system: aging buildings and the potential state takeover of low-performing schools.
Five of Hamilton County's predominately poor and minority schools — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle — will be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District if test scores do not dramatically improve this school year.
"If we don't accomplish progress in the next six months, the state is going to take our schools away, and we don't get another shot," said Tiffanie Robinson, a school board member who represents two of the schools.
Robinson asked district leaders what they're doing at the struggling schools — known as priority or iZone schools — to help improve their outcomes in coming months.
A plan to provide extra support to the priority schools has been taking place this school year and will continue throughout the spring semester, said Jill Levine, chief academic officer for the district. She added that principals at the priority schools helped develop the plan, and a big focus is placed on literacy.
The five schools facing state takeover have ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide for at least five years. They have received more than $13 million in federal grants and extra support for more than three years, but have posted little, if any, progress.
"This year, there is an opportunity for change,"said Karitsa Mosley Jones, who represents three of the priority schools.
But for years, the schools have not had aggressive and rigorous improvement plans, she said, and now the district is having to play catch-up. She said it's time people from across the county stepped in and helped schools improve so the state doesn't intervene.
Voicing concerns about how state takeover could impact more than schools but also the local economy, Mosley Jones said it's time the community helps the district turn the schools around.
"These kids matter," Mosley Jones said. "We have to get everyone in the county to see that."
Interim Schools Superintendent Kirk Kelly plans to provide the board at its meeting next week with an update on priority schools.
The board also had a separate facilities committee meeting and talked about potential new construction and giving the athletic fields at East Ridge High School — about 12 acres of land — to the city of East Ridge. If East Ridge owns the land, city leaders say they will improve the facilities and manage them, giving the city's schools priority use.
School board member David Testerman, who represents East Ridge, advocates for the deal, saying the district doesn't have money to maintain the fields and that this will best serve the schools and community.
School board attorney Scott Bennett and attorneys for East Ridge are working to nail down an agreement, and staff from Hamilton County Schools have given input on the deal.
The school board is expected to vote on deeding the property to East Ridge next week, and the Hamilton County Commission will ultimately have to vote to approve the transfer of the property.
On the topic of new construction, district staff reminded the board that several schools are facing overcrowding and others are aging and in need of major repairs.
Parents and teachers from Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts packed the board room for the discussion, hoping the K-8 school magnet school will receive a new building, allowing it to expand to a K-12 school.
Construction of the new school is estimated at $60 million, district officials said.
Kathy Lennon, who represents Signal Mountain and Red Bank on the school board, voiced support of the project.
"Wouldn't that be a great opportunity for more students in Chattanooga to have access to a great school?" she asked.
But school board member Rhonda Thurman pointed out that the project would suck up all the money the board could potentially spend on needed expansions elsewhere, which would impact more students.
Thurman said she can't justify spending that much money expanding a magnet school when regularly zoned schools are in dire need of repairs or are overcrowded.
"We have a lot of needs," Thurman said. "And I want people to understand we don't have money to do all of these."
Thurman proposed the board prioritize new construction at Harrison Elementary, and school board Chairman Steve Highlander agreed Harrison needs repairs and an expansion.
"CSLA is horrible and so is Harrison. There is some great teaching but the buildings are rough," Highlander said.
Construction at Harrison would cost about $35 million and would allow the school to serve 900 students, meaning it could take its students from Lakeside and Hillcrest, which are both old schools in the area.
The amount of money the Hamilton County Commission will allot for new construction is yet to be determined, but several board members said they want the district to prioritize a list of needed projects they can bring to the commission in coming months.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.