A Signal Mountain committee concluded after about eight months of study that the town feasibly could pull out of the Hamilton County Schools and create its own district if it can overcome certain obstacles.
People on the mountain have talked for years about taking their schools, some of the highest-performing in the district, out of the county system. In December 2016, the town council voted to form a committee to investigate the viability of a new school district. The seven-member School System Viability Committee was appointed in February.
Six members approved the 48-page report, and one, Charles Spencer, is listed as voting against approval.
Committee chairman John Friedl said the group was formed only to determine whether a school system could be viable.
"Not so that we can say, 'This is a great idea, you should do it,'" he said, "but so that if the council and voters decide to move forward, we have given them a path."
The report states that a new district would be financially sustainable, and even produce as much as $1.9 million a year in surplus revenue by having smaller administrative costs. Those savings would be used to improve education quality.
Source: Signal Mountain
Part of the committee's task was to identify and resolve potential obstacles. The group's report said it found solutions to issues such as insufficient financial resources, condition of buildings, decline in enrollment and the effect of withdrawal on Hamilton County Schools.
Two areas weren't resolved, the report stated. One is how mountain residents in Walden and unincorporated areas would participate in the creation, governance and financial support for the new district.
State law restricts a municipal school district to a single jurisdiction. That law could be amended, or the three communities could forge an interlocal agreement addressing those questions. However, it's not certain whether the Hamilton County Commission would be willing to enter an interlocal agreement.
The second unsolved problem is the control of school buildings. The Hamilton County Board of Education has stated multiple times that it would not hand over the buildings to a new school district.
Before the committee was appointed, school district attorney Scott Bennett warned Signal Mountain's attorney in an email that Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary could be sold to developers or repurposed for the county's school system. A newly formed district would have to find or construct its own buildings.
Bennett reiterated the county's opposition to transferring control of school buildings during a panel discussion between the county and the school board in early September.
Another obstacle was how the town would pay its required share of support for the district. State law says municipalities that operate schools must contribute $0.15 per $100 of assessed value for their support, according to the report. Other funding comes from the state, based on enrollment, and from local property taxes.
The panel suggested several solutions including in-kind contributions, such as the use of office space owned by the town or sharing of maintenance personnel.
An unspecified type of tax increase "is an open question," the report states. School taxes aren't required under state law, but the report noted that residents in all six cities that launched their own school systems in Shelby County voted for tax increases to support them.
Spencer's dissent, included in the report, cites several reasons he thinks the projected schools budget is "exceedingly risky." For example, he says using in-kind contributions rather than money to fulfill the town's required payment to the district could result in a misallocation of resources.
"A school district potentially wouldn't need the type of in-kind contributions that the town could offer," Spencer said Sunday evening. "Maybe the school needs school books instead of rental space."
Other risks he identified were the potential lawsuits, potentially associated with the fight for control of the school buildings, and not having enough resources for unintended problems. Spencer said he wished the committee would have spent an additional three to six months working on the research.
In response, the other six committee members said Spencer's point was a political issue, and "debating political issues was outside the scope of the committee's charge."
Several community members are less than enthusiastic about forming a separate school system.
Elizabeth Baker has children enrolled in Signal Mountain schools and has been following the committee's reports closely. She's shocked the panel found a separate school district viable despite so many obstacles.
"Some of those obstacles are requirements to have a school district," Baker said, adding she thinks the committee's findings placed the feasibility of a breakaway in the best possible light rather than only assembling facts.
The report's conclusion states its findings are not to be taken as recommendations for or against a separate school district, but as a "road map for how to proceed, should the Town Council and the voters decide to do so."
Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley told the Times Free Press he hopes committee members will make presentations to the public and answer questions.
"So we try to engage and educate the community as much as we can," he said. "Then folks will be educated on the process, and misconceptions have gone away and we're now dealing on facts."
Howley added there isn't a timeline set for any potential breakaway, and it may not even come to fruition.
"If everybody is focused on what is best for the quality of education for the kids, I think we can do nothing but come to a good answer," he said. "And it may be, you know, now is not the time."
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.