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Nolan Elementary is one of three Signal Mountain schools that would be part of a potential Signal Mountain school district.

Ad hoc committee members

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

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

Bill Leonard, former Signal Mountain mayor and Walden resident

Don Close, Signal Mountain volunteer

Kayse Rigsby, parent of SMMHS & Nolan students

Bill Kennedy, business owner & parent of SMMHS, Nolan students and a special-needs child

Rob Hensley, parent of SMMHS students

Signal Mountain schools committee

Susan Speraw, retired research professor at UT-Knoxville

John Friedl, a 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 & SMMHS students

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

 

Signal Mountain's three schools could have an additional $1.8 million to spend in the classroom if the town breaks away from Hamilton County Schools, according to preliminary budget calculations.

Last year a small group of parents and education stakeholders researched the viability of launching a separate school district, concluding the move was possible and likely in the best interest of about 2,500 students attending Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary.

On Saturday, ad hoc group members presented their findings and a proposed budget breakdown to the committee appointed by the Signal Mountain Town Council to investigate the feasibility of leaving the county school district.

Member Rob Hensley said people on the mountain have contributed more than $20 million to the schools since 2007, helping cover basic items such as construction of athletic facilities, technology and maintenance not covered by the district.

"The reasons the schools do well is because of the community," Hensley said. "It is not [because of] Hamilton County."

Signal Mountain's schools are top performers in the district and educate a very small share of minority and poor students. Hensley argued, though, they lag behind the state's top public schools, citing Williamson County, just outside Nashville.

If Signal launches a new district, the three schools would have more autonomy and receive nearly the same amount of per-pupil funding from the state and county, amounting to about $20 million, Hensley argued. Education funding is based on per-pupil allocations so Hamilton County Schools would receive less funding.

Amy Wakim, who helped develop the proposed budget, said the separate Signal schools district would have a lean central office and just a few administrators, which would free up about $1.7 million for classroom needs. The three schools now contribute nearly $2.5 million to the county's central office costs.

The proposed budget also absorbs all supply fees parents pay at registration and allocations from the Mountain Education Fund. This will allow MEF to donate to creative initiatives that will improve education, and not just give money for basic needs like art teachers and technology, Wakim said.

The building maintenance budget would be tripled, and the proposed budget would run a surplus of $800,000 annually, according to the calculations.

Under state law, the district schools would receive at least 15 cents for every $100 of Signal Mountain's assessed property value, which amounts to about $385,000.

Mayor Chris Howley said that sum doesn't have to be come from increased taxes but could be provided through other ways, such as the town paying for a school resource officer and the Mountain Arts Community Center continuing to provide art education.

Since state statute sets minimum enrollment for a district, Signal Mountain schools would have to continue enrolling students who live outside the town limits. Now, about 60 percent of the students attending the three schools live in the town.

"It's not a question about if students [from Walden and the unincorporated parts of the mountain] can attend the schools," Hensley said. "But it's a question of how to make it happen."

Six municipalities in Shelby County started their own districts in 2014, just three years after the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district merged with the primarily white Shelby County Schools. These districts allow students living outside the municipal boundaries to attend.

Hensley said it would be up to the town council and the school board, made up of Signal Mountain residents, to determine how to ensure all the students on the mountain have spots in the school.

The proposed budget assumes out-of-town students would be charged about $250, which would bring in about $153,000. The school board would decide whether to charge this "fair share fee."

Hensley believes precedent in Shelby County clears the way for Signal Mountain to take over the school buildings without paying the county for them.

After the presentation, Hamilton County school board member Kathy Lennon, who represents Signal Mountain and Red Bank, questioned whether this was the case.

"It's sounding like you think the land and the buildings are going to belong to Signal Mountain," Lennon said. " Before you really do a budget, that question needs to be answered."

Hamilton County Schools has previously signaled it will not give up the buildings without a fight.

Howley reminded the committee that attorneys will handle the logistics of acquiring the buildings. He said the committee's job is to answer all the other questions.

The Signal Mountain committee will meet the first and third Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. Its task list includes talking to teachers at the schools, validating the ad hoc committee's numbers and looking at the implications for special-needs and magnet school students.

If the 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, and is expected to receive the same presentation in coming weeks.

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

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