Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd revealed Wednesday a "comprehensive action plan" to address an estimated $55 million in school facility needs — with no tax increase.
His proposal, announced during a joint meeting of the commission's finance and education committees, calls for $4.1 million in county budget cuts and gives the Dalewood Middle School building to the Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts. Dalewood Middle would then combine with the Brainerd High School campus, according to his plan.
"Now, is it going to be palatable to everyone?" Boyd asked. "No. But before anyone criticizes and shoots arrows in the plan, I would only ask them to come forth with an alternative. Let's get the serious conversation going."
Boyd said he composed the plan in response to a call for an action plan made during a recent joint meeting of the County Commission and school board.
The Dalewood relocation, which Boyd described as a "hard pill to swallow," drew immediate skepticism.
Commission Vice Chairman Greg Beck voiced concerns, asking about the ethnic breakdown of the CSLA students who would displace the Dalewood students.
Boyd said he recommended the relocation because it would not require rezoning, would have minimal impact on busing, and would address capacity shortfalls in both Dalewood Middle and Brainerd High schools.
Jill Levine, chief academic officer for Hamilton County Schools, praised Boyd for looking for ways to put more money toward school needs, but said the CSLA swap with Dalewood shouldn't happen.
"The one thing we can't support in that plan is moving the Dalewood Middle students into Brainerd High School," Levine said. "We don't think it would be the right move for the educational well-being of middle school students to move them into a high school setting right now."
Dalewood Middle and Brainerd High are both "fragile" and are working to get out of the state's lowest-performing schools list, Levine said. Ultimately, the state would have to approve such a combination plan because of that, she said.
Brainerd High School's capacity may not actually accommodate the influx of middle school students, either, Levine said, adding the school system would update its enrollment numbers in the near future.
Boyd's cuts call for eliminating the entire $295,000 budget for the county's Read 20 program, $900,000 in discretionary funding for commissioners and using $2 million in hotel tax normally allocated to the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. While Boyd counts the $900,000 in discretionary money as a given to be cut, County Mayor Jim Coppinger has not included that money in the last two county budgets.
Enterprise Nature Park would lose $400,000, leaving it an estimated $1 million for its fiscal 2018 budget, according to Boyd's plan. The Humane Educational Society would take a $120,000 loss, while the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise Center and the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Planning Commission would take $100,000 hits apiece.
Boyd has recently questioned the CVB's spending habits and its accountability to the county. He acknowledged the agency has done well at drawing tourism dollars but said he believes it can do well enough without the county's entire portion of hotel tax revenues. The CVB is on track to receive $7 million in tax revenue this year, officials have said.
Bob Doak, CVB's president and CEO, could not be reached for comment.
Boyd outlined that the $4.1 million in cuts could be used to pay for borrowing $43 million to put toward capital school projects, including $28 million for a new school and $10 million for a public sports complex at Howard High School, a longstanding need championed by Beck.
Other big ticket items include new tracks for high schools in Tyner, Soddy-Daisy, Hixson and East Hamilton, estimated to cost $475,000 each.
The hotel tax money cut from CVB would be used for the sports complex, Boyd said, citing usage of such money on other major civic amenities in the past.
Boyd also recommended allocating $12 million in "one-time" money for Hamilton County Schools to put toward critical maintenance projects. The total includes a projected $4 million in proceeds from the sale of the East Brainerd Elementary School property, which the school board will already control — and $700,000 out of a pot of $900,000 in capital bond money Coppinger has made available to the commission this year.
"We have done an incredibly good job on every aspect of economic development, tourist development, you name it," Boyd said. "We've done a great job in Hamilton County, but we have done a poor job of keeping up with our facility needs and maintenance for our schools."
During a question-and-answer session after Boyd's announcement, Commissioner Greg Martin vehemently opposed defunding Read 20, which Boyd has repeatedly condemned as inefficient and ineffective. He also contested Boyd's assessment of the program and said he wished the committee could have had a true discussion instead of what felt like a news conference.
Martin took it a step further and challenged the premise of Boyd's action plan.
"As I understand county government, and I could be amiss, it is the executive branch — the mayor's office — that's going to present a budget to us and that we are going to be the ones that are going to approve or disapprove of that budget," Martin said. "That doesn't mean that these suggestions that you've made don't need to be considered."
Commission Chairman Chester Bankston stepped in during their exchange and declared the meeting over.
"What I really liked today is that they are throwing out ideas and that we're trying to work together," school board Chairman Steve Highlander said after the meeting.
Coppinger later cautioned the County Commission that while he considers education to be the most important thing the county funds, they still have to look at the big picture of the county's needs as a whole.
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.