Parents balk at school replacement cost estimates

Parents balk at school replacement cost estimates

September 30th, 2017 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Citizens, many wearing green shirts to support CSLA, pack into a meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

A group of Hamilton County parents is concerned with the high cost estimates for replacement of the schools that top the district's list for priority maintenance needs.

Harrison Elementary, East Hamilton Middle and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts are on the list released in February.

Harrison Elementary, built 77 years ago, is nearly beyond repair, with sewage regularly backing up in the hallways and extensive water damage. The 68-year-old CSLA is right behind it in deterioration, with water damage, decay, mold and mice, parents have said. East Hamilton Middle is not as old but severely overcrowded.

The estimated cost for a new building at Harrison is $35 million, and at East Hamilton it is $45 million. The group said the estimated replacement costs for those schools have stayed about the same over the years, while CSLA's cost has increased from about $46 million in 2012 to $64 million as of February.

Out of concern for CSLA's steep cost increase, the group set out to determine what was behind the estimates.

Old windows like this one seen Wednesday are in use throughout the building at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

Old windows like this one seen Wednesday are...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

"It started focusing on [CSLA], but it became so much more when we realized we can accomplish so many more of the projects that are in need if these high costs would be addressed," said Lesley Rice, one of the parents doing the research. " It really revealed a bigger issue in the county as we got deeper and deeper into our own story."

Group members compared previous school construction costs in the region, looked at other construction projects in Hamilton County and met with a local architect for advice. The group has compiled its findings and included them in a series of Google documents that are updated regularly as new information is added.

The group says there is no real explanation as to why CSLA's price tag keeps getting higher.

"These estimates are not based on any architectural or engineering studies," the group's report states, citing Hamilton County Board of Education minutes from February when officials voted on the list of priority school repairs.

A list of the schools' replacement cost estimates is included in the minutes. At the bottom, it states that "All costs are for budgeting purposes only. Architectural and engineering studies have not been done."

School board chairman Steve Highlander said the district's department of maintenance and operations arrived at the numbers.

"They're not bids," he said. "I think what that fine print was saying is that it's not an actual bid, because you have to get more specifics for a bid."

Crumbling concrete has exposed rebar seen under a stairway landing Wednesday at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

Crumbling concrete has exposed rebar seen under a...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Based on the estimates, board members "were given a list and asked to vote on their priority placement of the three new school construction projects and priority placement of the six new additions needed," according to board minutes.

Another finding the group highlighted is the square footage associated with new buildings. The group's report states that the estimated square footage per student for replacement buildings is greater than what is called for in the Tennessee Basic Education Program handbook.

"Costs can be lowered by reducing the size of the school[s]," a presentation of the findings states.

A new CSLA is the only project from a 1999 school facilities plan that was never implemented. The new school would be built on the site of the current building and expanded from K-8 to K-12. Being a magnet school, a new CSLA would help alleviate overcrowding in all nine districts, especially East Brainerd-area neighborhood schools, officials have said.

With the Hamilton County Commission recently allocating $100 million for school repairs, a heightened attention has been placed on which schools will get the repairs they need. But the parents group fears the high price tag for CSLA's repairs could cost the school its chance to get any share of the money.

"The $64 million is a political hurdle that we cannot overcome," Rice said. "We're going to have to bring that price down if we're ever going to see a new building There is nobody in the county willing to build us a building at that price tag."

Parents and other stakeholders have been lobbying the school board for a new building for years. The latest attempt came last week when some of the parents conducting the cost research presented their findings.

The presentation addressed costs associated with all three schools' construction, as well as additions to Snow Hill and Spring Creek elementary schools and renovation work at Howard Middle School.

By the end of the presentation, a call-to-action was issued, asking the board to re-evaluate current estimates based on BEP guidelines and historical costs associated with school construction.

Though the board did not ask any follow-up questions or discuss the matter further at that meeting, Highlander said the report made him want the numbers to be reviewed.

"Just to make sure we're on the right path," he said. "It's always good when people try to make sure we're following a solid path."

Peeling ceiling paint collects in the bathroom sinks in the teachers lounge as seen Wednesday at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

Peeling ceiling paint collects in the bathroom sinks...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Highlander said the district's experts would have to look closely at the numbers to make sure they're "comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges," referring to the quality of construction.

"There are some roofs they estimate will last 15 years and there are some roofs they estimate will last 40 or 50 years, and there's a substantial difference in the cost," he said.

School board member Rhonda Thurman agreed, and said prices for schools built several years ago were in a time "when money was cheap; it was easier to borrow money." She also said estimates include several things in addition to just building construction.

"We include ball fields, we include bleachers, we include furniture, we include all kinds of things that maybe they just did not include," she said.

She added that she will not support a new CSLA until all of the county's regularly zoned schools have been repaired.

Despite the pushback, Rice said the parents will continue to reach out to all elected officials as they look for help.

"We have a few [allies], but we know that we need more," she said, adding that they'll push two points: Harrison and CSLA are the top two schools in need, and they think the board can do more with its money if costs are lowered.

Peeling paint is seen on a portable classroom Wednesday at the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts. Rotten wood was recently replaced under the building and the carpets were cleaned to remedy a moldy smell after recent snowstorms, but the teacher has marked soft places on the floor with tape so that students can avoid stepping on them.

Peeling paint is seen on a portable classroom...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

CSLA Principal Krystal Scarbrough, who was at the board meeting when the presentation was made, said she was proud of the parents.

"They are a critical component of the success we enjoy here," she said. "And I'm glad they're not just focused on CSLA, but focused on finding a solution that's going to impact a lot of places in Hamilton County. It's a really good example for stakeholders to raise questions and provide suggestions."

She said she hopes CSLA continues to operate and can be open to more students who would like to attend it. The school has a waiting list of more than 700 children.

"All we really want is a safe, clean facility for our children," Rice said. "What we want is a building that's not falling down."

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfree or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.