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This 2008 photo shows the exterior of Signal Mountain Middle/High School.

Signal Mountain schools committee

› Susan Speraw, retired research professor at UT-Knoxville

› John Friedl, retired UTC provost and attorney

› Tom McCullough, former Signal Mountain Middle/High School principal and former small school district superintendent

› Thomas Peterson, retired physician and a resident of Walden

› Charles Spencer, retired financial analyst at TVA and involved in robotics initiatives in many public schools

› Amy Wakim, business owner and parent of Nolan Elementary & SMMHS students

› Melissa Wood, former educator and the mother of students at Nolan

The Signal Mountain committee investigating the viability of launching a separate school district has begun vetting preliminary budget calculations, which suggest the three schools could have an additional $1.8 million to spend in the classroom if they break away from Hamilton County Schools.

During a three-hour meeting Monday afternoon, the viability committee just scratched the surface of the proposed budget created for Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary schools. The three are among the county's top-performing schools and educate a very small share of minority and poor students.

A small, ad-hoc group of parents and education stakeholders informally researched the feasibility of launching a separate school district last year and created the preliminary budget, concluding that a separate district was possible and likely in the best interest of the approximately 2,500 students attending the schools. This prompted the town council to appoint a committee to investigate the option.

The group presented the preliminary budget to the committee in February, highlighting how the mountain has contributed more than $20 million to the schools since 2007, helping cover basic items not covered by Hamilton County Schools. The group noted that despite that financial support, the community has little say in decisions made about the schools.

Amy Wakim, who helped develop the group's preliminary budget and is a member of the town's viability committee, asked committee members Monday to study the proposed budget and ask questions.

"I appreciate you going through this line by line," she said. "That is a major part of this vetting process."

Wakim said the proposed budget borrows largely from the Bartlett Study, which was created by a consultant for a municipality in Shelby County, Tenn. Six municipalities launched their own school districts in 2014, just three years after the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district merged with the primarily white Shelby County Schools.

Charles Spencer, a member of Signal's committee, said the preliminary budget the committee is vetting has already reached a conclusion that a separate school district is viable.

"I'm a little uncomfortable with that," Spencer said.

He also asked if the town is considering hiring a consultant to help with the work, adding that it may be helpful.

Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley suggested the committee go through the proposed budget, checking its accuracy, before seeking outside help.

Wakim said it's a good use of taxpayer dollars to have a consultant vet the final product, instead of doing all the work that this committee can do.

If Signal launches a new district, the schools would receive nearly the same amount of per-pupil funding from the state and county, amounting to about $20 million, as education funding is based on per-pupil allocations.

A lean central office for the small district would free up about $1.8 million in additional funds to be spent in the classroom, Wakim said, as the three schools now contribute nearly $2.5 million to the county's central office costs.

One of the large missing pieces of the proposed budget is the cost associated with special education, Wakim said. The committee hopes to get more information from Hamilton County Schools in the coming weeks about the services it provides Signal Mountain students.

The committee also has to determine what health insurance would cost the new district, along with how funding works for students learning English and vocational programs.

The committee plans to meet again Thursday at noon to continue discussing the budget. The committee also meets the first and third Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the town hall.

If the Signal Mountain Town Council decides to form its own district, residents would have to vote to establish it in a referendum.

Red Bank also formed a committee to look at breaking away from the county school system. Officials in East Ridge also have quietly discussed launching a committee to look into it.

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

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