Four things to watch for at Thursday's Hamilton County school board meeting

Four things to watch for at Thursday's Hamilton County school board meeting

April 17th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Hamilton County District 4 School Board member Tiffanie Robinson is seen during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

This story was updated at 8:41 a.m. April 18, with more information.

As the time nears when the Hamilton County school board will present its budget to Mayor Jim Coppinger and the Hamilton County Commission, there are several items of interest up for discussion Thursday during the board's fourth budget work session and April regular session meeting.

Here are four things to keep an eye out for:

 

1. Potential approval of new bus contract

In March, the school board voted to end its contract with Durham School Services, its current — and controversial — transportation provider and accept a bid from First Student Inc. At the time, school district leaders said it was completing negotiations with the company and would have a contract for the board to approve in coming months.

Though a vote isn't on the agenda, board members were sent a copy of the contract by the district's attorney Scott Bennett early this week.

First Student Inc.'s original proposal was estimated to cost nearly $1 million more than Durham, which has prompted some board members to be wary.

District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman said she won't be voting in favor of the contract if it's added to the agenda because Superintendent Bryan Johnson still hasn't informed the board where that extra money will be coming from.

District 9 board member Steve Highlander expressed similar sentiments when the recommendation to accept First Student's bid was initially presented and abstained from the vote.

 

2. More lobbying against school vouchers

Several board members, including Steve Highlander, Jenny Hill, Kathy Lennon, Tiffanie Robinson and Joe Wingate, met with Gov. Bill Lee alongside leaders from other school districts across the state Tuesday to discuss the potential impact on local districts from the Republican's proposed education savings account proposal.

Hill has been outspoken in her opposition to the proposal. She spoke to the House Education Committee in March and has brought up the issue in numerous board meetings.

Her biggest concern is the potential cost — district officials have estimated that the proposal could cost the district more than $19 million in the first three years. Hill is also worried about the loopholes that families could find in the program.

"The way that this new voucher bill is set to work is there are not requirements for a student to live in Hamilton County for a set amount of time or attend a Hamilton County school to take advantage of the program," Hill said at a board work session Monday.

The board hasn't proposed to approve an official stance on Lee's current bill, but has previously spoken out against any program that would allow students to use public dollars to attend nonpublic schools.

 

3. Discussion of transportation options for special programs, out-of-zone students and more

The school board is set to approve an agreement with the city of Chattanooga for the development of a work-based learning program at The Howard School for high school students.

The agreement includes the city creating 25-50 part-time internship positions for Howard students and working with CARTA to provide free bus passes for the students participating in the program.

The agreement comes as the board continues to debate whether to provide transportation for students who attend a Future Ready Institute small, industry-themed learning communities embedded in traditional high schools — outside of their zoned school.

When the board heard from district officials about the new bus vendor, the bid only included the current number of bus routes, but they have the option to add more.

Board members like District 3's Joe Smith have argued that if the district buses magnet students, it should also bus Future Ready students, but whether that will become a reality remains unclear.

 

4. Vote to approve more funding for track renovations

Among several projects funded by the $110 million that Hamilton County Schools received from the county in 2017, were new tracks or renovations to tracks at five high schools. Hixson and Soddy-Daisy high schools' tracks are complete, but Brainerd and Central high schools' are not.

This week, facilities department officials will be asking for an additional $100,000 or more for soil remediation and site stabilization for the two sites.

According to a memo from facilities director Justin Witt, the district has "encountered an unforeseen amount of unsuitable soils and site issues" and the contractor, Baseline Sports Construction, has asked for more funds at each site: $31,137 at Brainerd and $76,737 at Central.

The requests come just weeks after the board reviewed the $3 million budget for next year's capital maintenance priorities and while it waits for preliminary results from a more than $500,000 assessment of all of the district's facilities.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.