Little — if any — consensus was reached when the Hamilton County Commission and school board met Tuesday night to discuss the needs of the school system's facilities.
Talk of aging schools, condemned stadiums and overcrowding in the classrooms lasted for more than an hour, with factions of commissioners and school board members advocating for different concerns and agendas.
Justin Witt, director of maintenance and operations for the Hamilton County Department of Education, told all 18 school board members and commissioners in attendance about the problems plaguing the county's aging schools that add up to more than $206 million of deferred maintenance.
School board Chairman Jonathan Welch said the board began to look at this list last year, and thought it was good for the commission to also see the school-level breakdown of the numbers.
"The deferred maintenance and capital maintenance [numbers] are daunting, to say the least," he said.
Witt told those seated in the Department of Education's board room that the average age of schools in Hamilton County is 40 years, and there are many large projects needed to repair the aging facilities.
Moving forward, Witt said he hopes the board and the county commission, which controls the school district's purse strings, can identify several large projects to fund, such as new air conditioning units at the Center For Creative Arts and Orchard Knob Middle School.
"These are projects I would say really need to be looked at," Witt added.
Tuesday night's conversation quickly pivoted to high school stadiums, and specifically the proposed cell tower at East Ridge High School.
A pending 25-year lease for a cell tower on the property of East Ridge High School will generate $1,500 in base rent a month, plus a one-time $10,000 donation. Also, the school system will receive 35 percent of gross revenues collected by the tower company from cellular services that use the structure.
The school board originally proposed the donated money be given to the school and that rental revenues be split between the school and the district's technology fund.
But County Commissioner Tim Boyd is proposing that all of the money be used to fund a new stadium at East Ridge High School, as its stadium was condemned last year.
Welch said he worries about the problems this arrangement may cause down the road, as not all schools have the opportunity to receive this sort of additional funding.
"My concern with the cell tower proceeds is that it puts a Band-Aid on East Ridge, but doesn't address Howard or Tyner [which also have condemned stadiums] or the other litany of needs," Welch said. "I worry about the precedent without having some sort of plan to actually take care of some of these facilities."
Boyd insisted that the deal seems like a solution to the community's needs, as the private funding would help replace the stadium.
Both school board member David Testerman, who represents East Ridge High School, and County Commissioner Joe Graham voiced support for Boyd's proposal.
School board member George Ricks agreed that up-to-date sports facilities are great for the community.
"Who doesn't want to go to a nice facility?" he asked.
But he said it is most important that all kids get the opportunity to have these facilities, not just those who live in certain communities or attend schools that have land that can be leased for cell towers.
No decision was reached on how to split the money from the tower, and in order for an agreement to be finalized both the county commission and the school board will need to rally five votes.
After that debate, Ben Coulter, director of transportation for the school system, talked about the overcrowding issues at several schools across the district — specifically in the city center and the eastern part of the county.
"One thing to know about the central city is that we've grown 900 students in about eight years, and that's just [in] elementary [grades]," Coulter said.
This growth is the equivalent of one large school, and he and those gathered around the table Tuesday night discussed many ways to create more space and redistribute students.
Lee McDade, assistant superintendent of administrative services for the school system, added that the growth in the Ooltewah area is also putting pressure on schools, and mentioned the potential need to build a new East Hamilton Middle School in order to create more space, as East Hamilton Middle/High now is at capacity.
That addition would free up more than 700 seats at what would become just East Hamilton High School, which McDade said could take some pressure off Ooltewah High School, which is also at capacity.
"Ooltewah's got us very worried," McDade said, talking about the increasing residential growth in the area.
County Commissioner Warren Mackey, who remained quiet until the end of the meeting, said he thinks the school board is being reactionary.
"It doesn't sound as if you got a plan," Mackey said. "It sounds as if you're in crisis mode."
Closing the meeting, Welch told Mackey he thinks the board is starting to think ahead for the first time since he joined it.
"Hopefully, we are at the point of looking at problems before they occur," he said.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.