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School officials have dropped the idea of relocating Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA) to the old Sears at Northgate Mall, instead opting Thursday evening to build a new campus on a site neighboring Lakeside Academy on Jersey Pike.

The new location for the school — whose building is deteriorating — is about 6 miles away from the current campus, compared to the previous plan to relocate to the mall, 9 miles away.

The plan is still to expand the liberal arts school so it educates students from kindergarten through 12th grade, instead of K-8.

The Hamilton County Board of Education approved construction on the new site in a 6-3 vote on Thursday.

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Plans for the new CSLA

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Estimates are for the project on the Lakeside property to cost $26.5 million, less than the cost of rebuilding on the original site, which was estimated at $30 to $35 million. It's also less than the $38 million estimate for relocation at the former Sears building.

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.

Representatives Karitsa Jones (District 5), Tiffanie Robinson (District 4) and Jenny Hill (District 6) all voted against the plan.

Jones told the Times Free Press she voted no because of concerns from constituents who preferred rebuilding at the school's current site.

Hill said her vote was because of her frustration with the political and bureaucratic process that led to the choices given to the board, although she is in support of CSLA getting a new home.

Robinson said the use of funding to expand an older building is not the best strategic plan for the district.

The current 20-acre Lakeside Academy has an existing elementary school building and acreage to build a middle and high school. The site also includes existing infrastructure, along with tennis and baseball fields that can convert to a baseball, soccer and football field.

CSLA's current building is located in District 8, represented by Tucker McClendon. McClendon called the Lakeside property move a "tough but smart decision that is within our means."

"CSLA parents brought Lakeside to my attention we are very straightforward with the administration on staying within our means and doing what we can within our budget," McClendon said Thursday night.

Early in the discussion, District 9 representative Steve Highlander suggested a 60-day delay "to look at an RFP [request for proposals] and see if we find a quality building with the money that we have."

"Would it be feasible for us to look at doing another RFP to see if it's feasible to do a building on the site or not?" Highlander asked the board. "We're saying its [cost] is $35 million. I have a [county] commissioner saying he could do it for a whole lot less."

Hamilton County District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd has reached out to other board members with suggestions including building on the current site without athletic fields, said District 2 representative Kathy Lennon.

She said she was surprised by Boyd communicating to others via phone calls and emails saying "'Yes, I can come up with $8 to $10 million more'" in paying for building a brand-new facility.

"I'm going ... how is it that he is telling everybody this, sending emails out?" Lennon said. "In the emails that I have been getting from people; he has even said that he has talked to other board members. So why is it that he is talking to other board members?"

Lennon also added that Boyd didn't mention his plans at the last commissioners meeting.

Jones said the one consistent thing she has heard from the CSLA community is the district should provide a safe building where children can get the best academic studies.

Jones said she, too, was bothered by Boyd reaching out to board members about the project.

"I will not sit on a governing body with eight other adults and allow other adults that sit on other governing bodies to 'Big Brother' me," Jones said. "I don't need anybody micromanaging nine adults who took an oath to do what is right for children. We have a board chair. We have a director of schools that we hired to do the job for us."

Boyd told the Times Free Press that his reaching out to board members was merely as a constituent and advocate for CSLA.

"I have 30 years of construction experience and have worked on school construction projects in five states from grades K-12," he said. "For any board member to slam me is both unprofessional and disrespectful. If they want to call and reach out to me, they can. Let's quit the fingerpointing and move forward."

Boyd added that, while the Lakeside property was not his first choice, he was glad the board chose "the best we could do with what we currently have."

The expected completion date for the new school is August 2022.

Since 1999, the K-8 magnet school's new location has been in talks, but previous plans and promises have fallen through.

CSLA's 71-year-old building 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 recommended for closure in an audit completed by MGT Consulting Group.

Contact Monique Brand at mbrand@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @MoBrandNews.

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