The Hamilton County Board of Education is set to vote on opening enrollment at seven more of the district's schools Thursday, but some board members are apprehensive about the vote — they want to see set guidelines and requirements for students to be able to attend schools outside their home zones.
At a board meeting Monday, board member Steve Highlander of District 9 said he was in favor of the idea — which would open enrollment at Dalewood Middle, the new Howard Middle, Lookout Valley Middle/High, Red Bank Middle, Rivermont Elementary, Soddy-Daisy Middle and Woodmore Elementary — but "with reservations."
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The board’s quarterly meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Hamilton County Department of Education, 3074 Hickory Valley Road.
"We don't want them to be dumping grounds for problem kids from other schools," Highlander said. "I would suggest that principals have at the semester mark the same review process we have for hardship cases — if they are a discipline issue, if they are an attendance issue or tardy issue, we [should] review them."
District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman also has spoken out in favor of specific rules for students to be able to attend schools out of zone. She said she wants principals to be able to approve or kick out students.
"I'm afraid they aren't going to let the principals have the autonomy to make their own decisions," Thurman said. "I don't see anyway we can vote on it until we see the guidelines."
Thurman said the district planned on filling open enrollment slots through lotteries if schools receive more applications than there are available slots, similar to how most of the district's magnet schools operate.
Chief of Schools Justin Robertson said district administrators and principals were working on procedures for how to review discipline problems, but he said he disagreed with Highlander that students who are considered problem students would be forced out of their home schools.
"We are going to set some pretty explicit guardrails," Robertson said. "We are going to have a principals meeting to talk about what would be the process for reviewing cases."
Highlander has said he won't vote to approve the plan without being able to review those guidelines, but Superintendent Bryan Johnson urged board members to push forward going into 2019 so the district could begin to better use its buildings.
"We know [principals] want guardrails, but we are also trying to do right by taxpayers and capacity," he said Monday.
Johnson has publicly noted the district's move toward a "choice district" for several months. The district's emphasis on using increasing capacity at underused buildings comes at the same time the board will vote to approve an external audit of its facilities.
At Thursday's quarterly work session, the board will consider several bids totaling around $521,345 for building assessments and a capacity and future growth study.
Seven firms responded to the district's request for proposals for a system-wide building condition assessment and designs to increase security at the front entrances of buildings. Director of Facilities Justin Witt is recommending MGT Consulting Group for a $337,915 building assessment and local Franklin Architects for the security design, which will cost about $33,500.
Witt told board members at Monday's meeting that the assessment would help identify buildings that are under capacity or have high maintenance costs and needs, as well as options such as combining schools.
MGT Consulting Group has worked with Metro Nashville Public Schools for more than 10 years, he said.
When another $149,930 is added for a future growth study, Witt said, the cost would come out to about $6,500 per building.
"When you talk about the whole building, it seems real big it's really $6,500 that we are spending for a comprehensive plan and trying to build a plan hat could be several million dollars in assessments," he said.
Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, said it will be a small price to pay for an understanding of the state of the district's infrastructure. He also said the audit will be eye-opening for the county and essential for when the board moves into budget talks in the spring.
"It's going to be a great benefit for us, but I think it's going to be a great asset and an eye-opener to the community to really shed a light on where our facilities are," McClendon said. "I've been shocked just being five years removed from a Hamilton County public school about how bad some of my schools are, and it's not just my schools but schools all over the district that past administrations have neglected and past Hamilton County commissions have neglected to invest in our buildings and our facilities. I don't think some people who control some of the purse strings would spend a full day in some of these buildings if they had the opportunity to."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.