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Ray Laliberte shares his opinion during a town council meeting Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, at the Signal Mountain Town Hall about the possibility of Signal Mountain forming its own school system.

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Signal Mountain council votes to study splitting from Hamilton County Schools

Schools within the county’s small municipalities

Seven of Hamilton County’s 10 municipalities have schools within their limits, and 20 of the district’s 76 schools are within the six small municipalities. Chattanooga has more than 40 public schools, and the unincorporated parts of the county have about a dozen schools.

Collegedale: Wolftever Creek Elementary, Ooltewah Middle School

East Ridge: East Ridge Elementary, Spring Creek Elementary, East Ridge Middle School, East Ridge High School

Lookout Mountain: Lookout Mountain Elementary

Signal Mountain: Thrasher Elementary, Nolan Elementary, Signal Mountain Middle/High

Soddy-Daisy: Sequoyah, Soddy Elementary, Allen Elementary, Daisy Elementary, Soddy-Daisy Middle School, Soddy-Daisy High School

Red Bank: Alpine Crest Elementary, Red Bank Middle School, Red Bank High School, Dawn School

Lakesite, Ridgeside and Walden have no schools within their boundaries.

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Signal Mountain schools

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By the numbers

* Hamilton County Schools: About 57 percent of the student body is white, and about 60 percent of students live in poverty.

Signal Mountain Middle/High School: About 93 percent of the student body is white, and about 13 percent of students live in poverty.

Thrasher Elementary: about 95 percent of the student body is white, and about 11 percent of students live in poverty.

Nolan Elementary: About 94 percent of the student body is white, and about 13 percent of students live in poverty.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Signal Mountain, Tenn., residents were divided Monday night about whether to consider breaking away from Hamilton County Schools, but ultimately the town council voted to form a committee tasked with investigating the viability of the move.

More than a dozen community members spoke during the two-hour meeting, and the group that's spent months researching the feasibility of forming a separate district shared its preliminary findings with the crowd.

"Signal Mountain schools have had success despite the Hamilton County Department of Education," said Rob Hensley, speaking on the group's months of research. "We are only able to address the symptoms of the problems rather than the underlying causes."

But others shared concerns about how breaking away from the county could hurt its other schools.

"The very idea is elitist," Bob Linehart said. "We are not just residents of Signal Mountain, but of the county, as well."

Hensley argued the mountain's schools are underfunded and the community is already supplementing many of the things Hamilton County Schools doesn't provide. Despite the swell of community support for the school, it still has little control over what happens, he said.

Preliminary research shows that launching a separate district would impact student achievement by allowing the mountain to retain and hire top educators and administrators, and it would boost the amount of money the schools receive, Hensley argued.

If municipalities decide to form school districts, the schools will receive state and county per-pupil allocations, meaning Hamilton County Schools would receive less money because of a decrease in enrollment, according to the state.

Some in the crowd urged the town to continue considering the breakaway, saying it should do whatever it can to guarantee the schools are the best. Hamilton County School's overall low academic performance, the continual turnover in leadership and decisions made by the school board were reasons community members said the town should consider creating its own system.

But some community members said they fear the district would be too much of a financial burden on the town. One parent said she was worried her kids would no longer be able to attend Hamilton County's magnet schools if a separate district was formed. Another mom said the new district might not be able to adequately support exceptional education. And residents of Walden and the unincorporated parts of the mountain said their voices would not be represented in a new district.

The initial proposal for the school district provides priority enrollment to Walden and those living in the unincorporated parts of the mountain, but those residents would not be represented on the new school board.

Rodney Van Valkenburg urged the council to select a diverse committee, saying those who worked on the preliminary investigation should not be included in the new one.

"The worse thing that can happen is this being taken to the voters without it being fully vetted," he said.

The Signal Mountain Town Council voted 4-1 in favor of forming a committee; Dan Landrum was the only vote against.

The idea isn't necessarily a bad one to consider, Landrum said, but he feared a committee appointed by the council would be biased.

Other council members argued that the committee, which can include up to seven people, will be chosen with diversity in mind and tasked with answering the community's questions about the idea and not making a recommendation.

If the findings seem to be favorable to breaking away from the county schools, residents of the town would vote on the move in a referendum.

Red Bank has already voted to form a committee to investigate creating a separate district, and East Ridge and Soddy-Daisy are expected to do the same in coming months.

But Hamilton County Schools has signaled that it won't give up the school buildings without a fight.

Scott Bennett, Hamilton County Board of Education's attorney, warned the town of Signal Mountain's attorney in an email earlier this month that if the mountain decides to start its own district, its school buildings could be sold to developers or repurposed for the county's school system.

Proponents of the new district believe precedent in Shelby County clears the way for them to take over the school buildings.

Hamilton County would be the second-largest Tennessee school system to lose schools to municipalities.

Six municipalities in Shelby County started their own school districts in 2014, just three years after the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district merged with the primarily white Shelby County Schools. The move fueled a legal battle among groups, and several of the Shelby County municipalities ended up buying the school buildings from Shelby County Schools in a $10 quitclaim deed. In a legal settlement, the municipalities also paid Shelby County Schools millions of dollars that went to post-employment benefits for the county schools' retirees.

Chattanooga City Schools and Hamilton County Schools merged in 1997 after city voters decided to get out of the school business.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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