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Signal Mountain School System Viability members John Friedl and Amy Wakim discuss the proposed budget for a seperate school district during a sub-group meeting on April 6.

Signal Mountain's committee looking into the viability of launching a separate school district wants to ensure that the move will not only prove financially sound, but improve the quality of the district's three schools.

Susan Speraw, a member of the committee, said during the group's meeting Wednesday night that improving the quality of Thrasher Elementary, Nolan Elementary and Signal Mountain Middle/High schools is the motivation driving the potential breakaway from Hamilton County Schools.

"If you can't do it better, why would you do it?" she asked.

Speraw said it's not easy to evaluate quality, and various stakeholders have different ideas of what that may look like. Some people might want to see ACT scores increase, or more money budgeted for guidance counselors and transportation, while others may want to see school fees eliminated, she added.

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This 2008 photo shows the exterior of Signal Mountain Middle/High School.
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Signal Mountain School System Viability members Tom McCullough and Melissa Wood listen to the mayor's comments during a sub-group meeting on April 6.

Moving forward, Speraw said it's important to talk to a variety of constituent groups and hear what's important to them, including the educators at the schools.

John Friedl, chairman of the committee, updated the group on the finance sub-committee's work. He said the group has met numerous times and is working to verify every number in the new district's proposed budget. The group has been verifying the numbers with official sources and calculations from Hamilton County Department of Education and the individual schools, he said.

But there is still some information in the budget the committee is waiting to confirm, Friedl added.

"We are getting there," he said. "But it's going to take awhile."

Friedl noted the committee is tasked with doing more than developing a budget for one year — it also needs to project the budget out for five and 10 years. He expects the finance committee will meet at least two more times before completing its work.

The preliminary budget the board is developing estimates that the three schools would receive at least $1.8 million in additional money that could be spent in the classroom if they left Hamilton County Schools.

With regards to facilities, Tom McCullough, a member of the committee, said he met with Gary Waters, Hamilton County's former assistant superintendent for auxiliary services.

McCullough said Waters told him that there is no deferred maintenance at Nolan or Signal Mountain, and about $2 million needed at the mountain's oldest school, Thrasher.

Waters estimated that in the next 10 years, Nolan and Signal Mountain will not need any capital maintenance, but that Thrasher may need a new heating and air conditioning unit, McCullough said. To build a new elementary school could cost between $20 million and $30 million, he added.

In 2014, six municipalities in Shelby County formed their own school districts, just three years after the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district merged with the primarily white Shelby County Schools.

Charlie Spencer, a member of the committee, has spoken with the superintendents of four of the six municipal school districts. Those municipalities were motivated to create their own districts out of concern that the merged county school system would decrease the quality of their schools. The communities also wanted to have more of a voice in their schools, Spencer said.

"The overriding issue was local control," he added. "... the funding wasn't the driver."

Signal Mountain's seven-member committee plans to travel to Shelby County in the coming months to meet with superintendents, mayors and other stakeholders to learn more about the municipal districts.

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During Wednesday night's meeting, Melissa Wood, a member of the committee, mentioned that many conversations about a separate school district are swirling around the mountain, and some groups are for the idea, while others are against it.

"There is so much misinformation out there right now," Wood added. "There is a lot of uncertainty in the situation."

Amy Wakim, a member of the committee, said once the committee's findings are unpacked, it will help ease a lot of concerns, or answer people's questions.

Friedl said the group will likely have a draft of its findings for the council and community to review this fall.

The three schools on Signal are among the county's top-performing schools and educate a very small share of minority and poor students.

The Signal Mountain Town Council voted last year to appoint a committee to investigate the viability of starting a separate school district. The committee is not tasked with making a decision, but finding the facts for the council. 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. 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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