Hamilton County school buildings audit findings to be revealed Tuesday

Hamilton County school buildings audit findings to be revealed Tuesday

July 22nd, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

CORRECTION: This story was updated to reflect the figure school board member Rhonda Thurman said she expected to hear on deferred maintenance and facilities repairs stood at $600 million, not $600,000. Updated Monday, July 22, 2019, at 9:50 p.m.

Hamilton County District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman during a work session before the school board meeting in the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, July 18, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Hamilton County Schools officials are expected to unveil the system's long-awaited facilities report Tuesday, and school board members say it will foreshadow long-term plans for the district's aging buildings.

The audit was commissioned by Superintendent Bryan Johnson and the school board last fall, and MGT Consulting Group has been conducting it on the district's more than 80 buildings this fall. Unveiling the report gained urgency when Hamilton County commissioners called for it as the district asked for increased funding, not for capital, but for operations in its original fiscal year 2020 budget report this year.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, board members and commissioners will be meeting with representatives from MGT to discuss the report, but many said Monday that they didn't need it to tell them what needed to be done to improve Hamilton County's school buildings.

"I'm expecting to hear that we have about $600 [million] in deferred maintenance and facilities repair," said board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1. "I'm just afraid it's going to be a half million dollar paperweight."

Hamilton County District 8 School Board member Tucker McClendon speaks during a work session before the school board meeting in the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, July 18, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County District 8 School Board member Tucker...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

The district has conducted facilities reviews before. The most recent review by an external contractor or group was in 1999, which reported more than $92 million in capital needs across 81 buildings. The district also adopted a facilities plan in 2007 that recommended closing 14 buildings and major renovations at another two dozen.

Many of those recommendations were never completed, though, even after the county allocated $110 million toward the district's capital needs in 2017.

Thurman said many past administrators have "only looked for something to help them bolster what they want done."

District 8 board member Tucker McClendon, the point person on the board for facilities, said he thinks Tuesday's report will give the district a game plan.

"It's going to give this district, the school board and the county commission a deeper look at infrastructure issues in our district. It will give us a road map to how we get our schools back up to the standards that we expect for our students," he said.

Hamilton County School Board member Joe Smith speaks during an informal discussion before the next superintendent was chosen Thursday, June 15, 2017, during the Hamilton County Board of Education meeting at the Hamilton Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tenn. Each board member was given the opportunity to say a few words about candidates before the final vote was made later in the meeting.

Hamilton County School Board member Joe Smith speaks...

Photo by Erin O. Smith

McClendon predicts consolidations and school closures among the recommendations.

"I think our deferred maintenance number is going to be higher than some people expect," he said. "It's sometimes appalling the conditions that our students and teachers have to go to school in every day."

District 3 board member Joe Smith said he was lucky to have many good schools in his region of the county and noted that most school officials shouldn't be surprised by MGT's findings.

"We've got a lot of buildings that are in bad shape and need a lot of repair, we know that," he said. "We've probably got a lot of buildings that need to be closed, re-zoned and more consolidated, we know that."

Smith said he's confident that Johnson and the district will seek input from the community, commissioners and business leaders before coming up with a 10-year strategic plan for the districts' schools.

Hamilton County District 9 School Board member Steve Highlander is seen during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County District 9 School Board member Steve...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

District 9 board member Steve Highlander, one of several board members to have gotten a sneak peek at the report Monday night, said the board has authorized Johnson to develop a 10-year plan and that's what he hopes to eventually see.

Most of the board members that the Times Free Press spoke with Monday didn't think the facilities report would have any impact on this year's budget.

Commissioners shot down a 34-cent property tax rate increase for public education last month, and several cited the lack of a capital plan as a reason why they voted against an increase.

The school board is scheduled to vote on a revised budget Thursday. It will then go back to the county commission for approval.

The county school board and the county commission will meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the county's McDaniel Building, 455 N. Highland Park Ave., for a joint meeting to discuss the facilities report.

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


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