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School board members study information packets during their meeting Thursday, September 15, 2016 at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

After months of back and forth debate, the Hamilton County school board voted Thursday to approve a contract to hire a superintendent search firm.

The actual vote Thursday night was unanimous and came with hardly any discussion.

The school board will work with Coleman Lew and Associates Inc. to find the district's next leader, and the goal is to have someone filling the post by July 2017. Board members who previously voted to select this firm said they appreciated its aggressive recruitment strategy and the diverse pool of candidates it will likely provide, including some non-educators.

It's estimated the board will pay the firm about $60,000.

The board also voted to have its attorney, Scott Bennett, explore the possibility of giving East Ridge High School's aging athletic facilities to the city of East Ridge.

The school's soccer, baseball and softball fields, tennis courts and track are all in need of serious repairs, said school board member David Testerman, who represents the school. Just last year East Ridge High School's football stadium was condemned and is being repaired using district funds.

The city of East Ridge is offering to foot the bill to repair and maintain the athletic facilities if they become city property.

"I think it's just common sense to let some folks help us out," Testerman said.

A board decision to transfer the property — estimated to be about a dozen acres — would require approval by the Hamilton County Commission.

The athletic facilities have not received needed maintenance for years, said Marvin "Stump" Martin, East Ridge's director of parks and recreation. He said the the City Council hasn't voted yet, but the plan right now is to have someone work at the high school full-time taking care of the fields, courts and track.

"We are trying to be the good guys and have something nice in the city of East Ridge," he said. "And that's going to bring more people to our schools."

Board member Tiffanie Robinson cast the only no vote. She voiced concern about giving away the land, saying property is one of the only assets the school district has.

Another stir came up on the topic of school field trips. Board member Rhonda Thurman voiced concerns about some field trip request forms presented to the board for approval.

Several proposed trips opened the board up to potential liabilities, Thurman said. She asked about things like a male chaperoning an out-of-town girls basketball tournament and 10 kids being listed as riding in the same car for a trip.

"I'm sorry, but these are just questions that somebody needs to ask," she said.

In December the Ooltewah High School boys basketball team went on an unapproved trip to play in a basketball tournament in Gatlinburg, Tenn. During the tournament a freshman player was held down by two teammates as a third raped him with a pool cue, injuring so badly he required emergency surgery.

"Seeing what we have been through, especially in this very recent past in this school system, there are things we need to look at," Thurman said. "I, for one, have been through enough hell with this stuff that I want this cleaned up."

Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said he and his staff will work fix some of the request forms and provide the board with more information.

At the end of the meeting, school board member Greg Martin resigned. He recently won an election to represent District 3 on the Hamilton County Commission. The commission is expected to name his replacement to the school board Nov. 30, and people interested in the position can apply until Nov. 22.

Before the meeting, the school board met behind closed doors with its attorney in an unannounced executive session. The board is allowed to meet to discuss things like legal matters away from the public, but may not deliberate or vote.

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

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