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Guests applaud during a "State of the System" address at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson shared the current state of the school system and his outline for the future in an address to the community.

It's been 20 years since an audit recommended more than $9.2 million in maintenance and renovations at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

Opened in 1922, it was among the lowest-scoring school buildings on the Hamilton County Schools' 1999 facilities audit scale. Out of 100 points, it scored a mere 45.7. The only school to score worse was Hardy Elementary at 40.3.

Almost a decade later in 2007, the building again was identified as in need of major repair.

The 77-year-old building — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — needed help.

Over the years, efforts have been launched to help the school. In 2015, a campaign began to raise funds to replace the seats in the school's auditorium.

At the time, Principal Jim Boles told the Times Free Press that it was "part of the game," something that school leaders have come to expect.

He said it wasn't the school district's fault.

"People want something for nothing — great schools, great facilities," he said in 2015. "But you can't do that when you're not willing to pay for education. That's repeatedly the message our county continues to give."

This week, nearly two decades and a generation of students since that 1999 facilities audit, another assessor and another audit told another administration that CSAS's physical building condition, with a condition score of 56, is an unsatisfactory environment for students.

And CSAS isn't alone.

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The orchestra fills the bands room at CSAS. The Chattanooga Youth Orchestra, under the direction of Gary Wilkes, rehearsed at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences in preparation for their Spring Concert at the Tivoli Theatre on Monday. This year the orchestra celebrates its 30th anniversary.

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A History of School Facilities Plan

1999 external facilities review: Schools recommended to be replaced or closed

> Replaced: Red Bank High, CSLA, Alpine Crest Elementary, Allen Elementary, Hardy Elementary, Harrison Elementary

2007 facilities plan recommendations: Schools recommended to be replaced or closed

> Replaced: East Ridge Elementary, East Brainerd Elementary, Red Bank Middle School, Ooltewah Elementary, Ooltewah Middle, Soddy-Daisy Middle

> Closed: Lookout Mountain Elementary, CSLA*, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Hillcrest Elementary, Woodmore Elementary*, Alpine Crest Elementary, East Ridge Elementary, DuPont Elementary, Rivermont Elementary, Lakeside Academy

2019 preliminary facilities report: Schools recommended to be replaced or closed

> Replaced: Orchard Knob Middle, Tyner High, DuPont Elementary

> Closed: Alpine Crest Elementary, Lookout Mountain Elementary, Lookout Valley Elementary, Lakeside Academy, Normal Park*, Soddy-Daisy Middle*, Tyner Middle, Rivermont Elementary, Sequouyah High, Harrison Bay Vocational High, CSLA*, CSAS*, Barger Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary

* denotes schools recommended to be relocated to a new site or building

 

Unsuitable learning environments

Nineteen of Hamilton County's 74 school buildings are considered poor or unsatisfactory facilities.

A report conducted by MGT Consulting Group found that in total 21 of the district's schools are unsuitable learning environments for the students who attend them.

And current members of the school board and Superintendent Bryan Johnson's leadership team said the $1.36 billion in capital and maintenance needs across the district didn't crop up overnight.

In fact, some say the "decades of failed leadership and a lack of strategic planning" led directly to where the district's buildings are today.

"Prior county commissioners, prior school boards, prior superintendents are all to blame for how we got this far, and I think it's time this county looks at serious ways to fix this problem and get our schools up to where they should be," said school board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, the board's point person for facilities.

"Decisions were made not to invest heavily into our infrastructure and that's what you see today. You don't have to point fingers to see where those lack of decisions were or where there's been a lack of investment, but there's no doubt that this problem didn't just pop up on us in 2019, this problem has been there," McClendon added.

But public officials and school board members have said this before.

And students are still going to schools each year in buildings that need things ranging from new blinds and better windows to asbestos removals, ADA-compliant bathrooms, new roofs and, in some cases, to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.

Same schools, same story

On Tuesday, members of the school board, the county commission, Johnson and Mayor Jim Coppinger met with Dan Schmidt, director of MGT's Education Consulting Group.

Schmidt revealed the findings of months of work to assess the district's schools, including their current capacity and utilization, physical building and grounds conditions, and the schools' ability to provide appropriate environments for technology and the education programs they house.

The report has already ruffled feathers and caused concern for community members and officials alike.

It recommends closing 15 schools, relocating seven of those programs and repurposing another nine sites. It also recommends tearing down and replacing three schools and renovating another 21.

(Search by school here)

Of the 17 buildings the report recommends closing or tearing down — Alpine Crest Elementary, Lookout Mountain Elementary, Lookout Valley Elementary, Lakeside Academy, Normal Park, Soddy-Daisy Middle, Tyner Middle, Rivermont Elementary, Sequoyah High, Harrison Bay Vocational High, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, CSAS, Barger Academy, Clifton Hills, Orchard Knob Middle, Tyner High and DuPont Elementary — at least half of them were recommended to be closed in the 2007 facilities plan.

School board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, is the longest serving of the nine current members of the board. She has served on the board since 2004, and in that time some county commissioners, including Chester Bankston, of District 9; Chip Baker, of District 2; and Greg Martin, of District 3, have come and gone from the school board to the commission.

She said the district doesn't "have one penny to do one thing," in regard to the $855 million preliminary renovation plan that MGT recommended this week.

"Some of the things he brought up are things we've wanted to do before but we haven't had the money," she said.

Board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, echoed Thurman. He said some of the recommendations made in MGT's report were things he and other board members have recommended before.

"The people did a good study and a lot of the things, they were more numeric than but most of the things, the vast majority of them, we had already looked at, and maybe you could say they gave more credence to it, they gave it more of a prioritization than we had before," Highlander said.

Thurman said she doesn't expect either school board members or county commissioners would step up now to make some of these needed improvements and renovations and, at a recent school board meeting, she characterized use of the district's fund balance to pay one-time bonuses for teachers as a misuse of savings.

"For those that wonder how our buildings get in such bad shape, this is how it happens," Thurman said. "At one time we'd use our fund balance to build schools, a lot of people don't know that. We'd use fund balance instead of bonds. You want to know why we don't get a lot of repairs to our schools? We're taking it out of fund balance. We could be using every bit of that money to repair schools. That's how it happens."

'You've got to have the money'

The school district has spent about $93 million on facilities in the past 10 years, according to Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg and Director of Facilities Justin Witt. That number does not include bond-issued projects, such as the building of new school buildings, by the county commission.

But that $93 million does include the $3 million budgeted each year for general maintenance needs. Back in 1999, the facilities audit identified more than $92 million in urgent capital needs. By 2007, that number had ballooned to $200 million.

The Mayor's Budget Working Group, commissioned to analyze the school district's operating budget and make recommendations to Coppinger and the superintendent, raised a red flag about the district's lack of a strategy for its facilities in 2017.

"[The district] is unable to meet challenges related to infrastructure," the working group's report said.

The report recommended the district and county consolidate and rezone schools in the next four years and found more than $200 million in deferred maintenance, with five schools with more than $10 million in maintenance costs.

In 2017, the county commission did allocate $100 million for school capital projects, though. With an additional $25 million from the district's fund balance, two new schools were slated to be built and CSLA would be shuttered and moved into the old Tyner Middle School. Several other schools were to receive new or renovated athletic facilities.

But County Commissioner Greg Martin, of District 3, said that how the district has spent — or not spent — some of that money has not bought the district any favor from the commission.

Martin said the commission approved $28 million to renovate and merge Tyner High and Tyner Middle to make room for CSLA to move into Tyner Middle, but that project was never started.

"I don't understand how the school board can think they are going to build goodwill for the projects they want to do for capital and operations when they took the capital program that the commission voted on and [have] not finished it," Martin said.

He said he was disappointed when the board voted to spend nearly $500,000 on the facilities audit in the first place.

"At the end of the day, the biggest and most egregious problems, we already know what they are," Martin said. "You have to figure out Alpine, DuPont, Rivermont elementary schools that's been part of the conversation for years. That's been on the radar for a long, long time we didn't need to spend half a million to know that. CSAS, we all know that building is a disaster just waiting to happen, just like the old middle school that we call CSLA."

The county commission will eventually have to help the school district address the conditions of the county's schools.

The district does not actually approve capital projects. Board members have said this week that any conversation about long-term, definite plans is a long way off. MGT will be conducting community meetings in the upcoming months and an official report has yet to be recommended to the school board.

But the board does intend on adopting a 10-year strategic plan for facilities, board members have said. This is one of the recommendations of the mayor's Budget Working Group. Those recommendations also influenced the district's original budget proposal for fiscal year 2020.

But since the original budget, with an request for a $34 million increase in operating funds, was voted down by the commission, it is unclear how the district could adequately fund capital projects.

The working group recommended the country create a new tax levy dedicated solely to school infrastructure and technology as well as explore an increase in sales tax, imposing a wheel tax or seeking state legislation for alternative tax options.

"Every person who saw this report knew it might not be shocking, knew it was time to do something. We heard that from the county commission during the budget process," McClendon said.

McClendon said he'd like to see the district develop public/private partnerships, explore wheel tax options or increasing the sales tax.

"I can't speak on behalf of the county commission, but I can say I hope that they'll do something. I think it would be beneficial for this county in terms of economic development for us to have a top-notch school system. I would hope that we would take a 10-year plan and that the county commission would adopt that same 10-year plan. We heard them saying we want to work together and this is the perfect opportunity, we could codify a 10-year plan."

Highlander told the Times Free Press that he doesn't feel like it's a political challenge the district must overcome, just a financial one.

"You've got to have the money to have the facility prepared for them and we've been slow getting money to meet the needs to consolidate," he said.

He said the mayor and the commission have options, and if he were them he'd want to hear from his constituents about what they'd like to see.

"I personally would like to see a voter referendum and let the voter decide. Give the options to the voters and let them hear the needs and let them vote," he said. "I'm still searching for what the answers are, we know we have needs. I'd like to know the will of the people."

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

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