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Signal Mountain Middle High School would be one of the schools in a separate Signal Mountain Schools district.
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The Signal Mountain committee investigating the viability of starting its own school system voted Wednesday night after some debate to ask Hamilton County Schools to review its proposed budget.

Whether the Hamilton system will agree to do that — or whether the the Signal Mountain committee will find such input helpful — is up for debate.

"Hamilton County right now oversees our Signal Mountain schools. I don't know what we would lose to have another set of eyes to see what we've done," said Charley Spencer, a retired financial analyst at TVA and member of the committee.

But other committee members voiced concerns about Hamilton County Schools being biased against the committee's proposed budget.

John Friedl, chairman of the committee and a former provost at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said a majority of the committee has a pretty high level of confidence in the accuracy of the budget, adding that the Tennessee Department of Education has reviewed it and said it compares to districts of similar size across the state.

Hamilton County Schools is on record against Signal Mountain creating a separate district, Friedl added, and has threatened litigation if a separate district is created.

"[Asking the county to review the budget] is like sending your plans for the chicken coop to the fox, and saying, 'Do you like the design?'" he said.

Ultimately, the committee decided 6-1 to ask Hamilton County Schools if it would be willing to review, validate and comment on the budget.

Committee member Susan Speraw voted against, agreeing it's a conflict of interest for Hamilton County to review the budget and saying it could place county employees in an uncomfortable position. She suggested the committee ask another district, similar in size to what Signal Mountain's would be, to review the budget.

During the more than 40-minute debate, Spencer also cautioned the committee against moving too quickly in its review and urged it to collect as much information as possible.

"One thing I have learned over time is not to be schedule-driven," he said. "If we feel as a community we need more time to get more input from whoever, then that's what we should do."

In his 30 years living on the mountain, Spencer said this is the most significant decision the town will make.

Friedl asked Spencer if his objections to the committee's work will ever end.

"When does it get to the point we say we are comfortable and confident and ready to move on?" he asked. "We've been doing this for five months."

The seven-member committee plans to release a final report in the coming months detailing its findings about the viability of launching a separate school district. After the report is released, the Signal Mountain town council is expected to hold community forums, allowing for public discussion about the report and plans to launch a separate district.

The council will then decide whether it wants to move forward and hold a referendum, giving town residents a chance to vote on whether to secede from Hamilton County Schools.

If Signal launches its own school district, it will take three of the county's top-performing schools — Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary. The schools educate about 2,500 students and a very small share of minority and poor students. About 35 percent of students attending Hamilton County Schools are considered economically disadvantaged.

Parents in Brentwood, a wealthy Nashville suburb, also want the municipality to consider leaving Williamson County Schools, which is one of the state's top-performing school districts.

Parents in Brentwood have argued that a separate district will be able to better meet the needs of students. Meanwhile, parents have voiced concerns about Williamson County's district-wide rezoning proposal, which would send some Brentwood students to other schools in the county. Just 4 percent of students in Williamson County are considered economically disadvantaged.

The committee released a survey this week and is asking educators, parents and the community to share how the quality of the mountain's three schools can be improved.

"Your thoughts about the current state of our schools, as well as specific suggestions for improvement, are important for us to know," according to the survey introduction. "Even the best schools are always exploring ways to improve the quality of education they provide. We want to know your thoughts about strengthening the quality of education our children receive."

The survey asks people to evaluate a variety of things ranging from the quality of teachers and curriculum to policies and communication.

The survey will be available online until Aug. 21 and can be accessed on the Signal Mountain town's website.

Speraw said that since the survey was posted Monday, more than 300 people have taken 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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