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Renderings of a new location for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts dated March 2, 2020 depict a new school building, gymnasium, soccer field, playgrounds and parking lots on the former Sears site at Northgate Mall in Hixson. The renderings were presented to the Hamilton County school board during its Thursday, April 23, 2020, meeting. / Photo from Hamilton County Schools

A new gymnasium. Technology and science labs. Space for a high school. A new home.

Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts students are on their way to getting all of these things through Hamilton County Schools efforts to purchase and renovate the former Sears building at Northgate Mall in Hixson.

Many CSLA parents are excited — especially after years of waiting and broken promises — and school district leaders hope what they're calling an innovative, cost-efficient approach can become a model as the district tackles $1.36 billion in lacking school facilities over the next ten years.

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Prospect of new CSLA at former Sears location

 

Intent to purchase

Last December, the Times Free Press toured CSLA as part of a three-part series taking a look at Hamilton County's best and worst facilities.

On the day of the visit, maintenance team members were working in the school's library to find the source of a water leak that had sprung up over Thanksgiving break. Water pooled behind shelves and in the corner. Furniture was pushed across the room to allow for large dryers.

It was just another day in the 71-year-old building that is prone to water leaks, sits on a shifting foundation, is riddled with windows that don't seal and isn't accessible to people with disabilities. The school, built in 1949, was rated as one of the worst schools in the district in a 1999 facilities report and has again been recommended for closure in a facilities audit completed by MGT Consulting Group over the past 18 months.

Over the past few months, district officials including Justin Witt, director of facilities, and school board member Tucker McClendon, who represents CSLA, have scoured the county looking for a new place for CSLA to call home.

Last week, Director of Operations Justin Robertson revealed the proposal to purchase and renovate the 179,000-square-foot former Sears store publicly to the school board.

The board didn't take action on the proposal, which included renderings dated back to March 2, 2020, on Thursday — but it doesn't necessarily have to yet.

Board attorney Scott Bennett has already worked with the district administration to draw up a letter of intent that can be given to the current property owners, Sears Holding Co., pending board approval of the purchase.

"A letter of intent expresses that we are serious about this and we are not just kicking it around," Bennett said during the board meeting Thursday night.

District officials hope to move as quickly as possible on the proposal. The plan would include building a new gymnasium, an athletic field, three playgrounds, re-configuring parking space, landscaping and fencing and renovating a 165,000-square-foot retail space into a school in time for it to open in August 2021.

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'Not ideal'

Lesley Rice, a parent of CSLA students, said she is excited about the creative approach.

"As a CSLA parent and a taxpayer in Hamilton County, I am excited to see our county thinking outside the box (inside a big box?) on school construction," she said by email. "Our county has massive facility needs and very limited funds. This Sears option is not without flaws, and the option our parents would have preferred would be new construction on the existing CSLA site."

Rice said she hopes the district will incorporate community feedback and address some community concerns like traffic flow, safety and lack of green space at the site located in the middle of Hixson's retail core, but thinks it is a promising concept.

Sandy Kirk, a grandparent and long-time advocate of CSLA's facilities needs, also called the plan "not ideal" but said it seems like the best option under the circumstances.

"It's not our ideal choice because of the green space but I think it will probably end up a better interior than what we would hope to build," Kirk said. "We're never going to have the money to build the school we want and we'll become closest to this because we'll just have to do the inside. We can be there in a year and a half."

School board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, asked his fellow board members what they had heard from the CSLA community when the plan was first presented Thursday night.

The majority of the community seems in favor of it, Highlander had concluded, though some CSLA parents have been upset that they hadn't heard about the plan sooner. "Not everyone at CSLA is pleased and happy with this move, but the majority of them are," Highlander said.

Superintendent Bryan Johnson agreed.

Mandy Senn-Simmons, another parent of a CSLA student, said she was unaware of the plan until she received an email from school leaders this week.

"I'm just pleasantly surprised and have been scared that something would happen that our school wouldn't even get a school," Senn-Simmons said. "I love the idea that it is creative, it's innovative and it's less expensive that building a new school. Maybe they could utilize those funds to help other children."

 

The future of school construction

The district has about $28 million left over from a $110 million bond funding allocation from the Hamilton County Commission in 2017 for capital projects to use toward the CSLA project, but it will need about $10 million more for the Sears project, Robertson said Thursday.

Building a new K-12 school could run as much as $60 million, and as Senn-Simmons and other parents pointed out, the district doesn't seem to have that kind of funding.

Robertson noted that this innovative approach could have school construction in the future and several board members agree.

"I think this is certainly the future of how schools are built. Having a background in commercial real estate, I do believe this is the future of even commercial real estate. And now in light of COVID, this is the future and people are going to be looking to repurpose large spaces," board member Tiffanie Robinson of District 4 said.

Board member Jenny Hill of District 6 echoed Robinson.

"I think once this has been done once in Hamilton County, that we may find that it is an excellent way to be stewards of taxpayer dollars," Hill said. "Things that I like about the plan are that it is half the cost to build a new K-12 school Also, I think it's really important that by going K-12 we are responding in a positive way to Hamilton County. This is a school that parents in Hamilton County want their children to be in."

The concept isn't a brand new one for Hamilton County. Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence first opened in part of the former Eastgate Mall in a space that is now occupied by Skyuka Hall, an independent school for students with learning disabilities, and Chattanooga Christian School was built at the site of a former automobile dealership.

Johnson said the plan is still in its infancy, but for now, Senn-Simmons said she is "tickled" about the possibility.

"Some families felt like they didn't get enough heads up or buy-in, but a majority of people, they're just happy that there's a possibility for a good, new location for our students."

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

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