As the futures of some Hamilton County public schools remain uncertain, members of one school community are fighting to save theirs.
Earlier this year, alumnae Rachel Shannon started a petition to designate Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences (CSAS) as a local historic landmark.
The move would have to be taken before the city of Chattanooga's Historic Zoning Commission, but would prevent any future demolition or exterior construction projects on the building without the commission's review.
Shannon, who is an interior designer for McCoy Homes, said that the nearly 100-year-old building and the school program are "very near and dear" to her and her family.
"I [believe] that the building's energy and the sense of connection to something larger than yourself that it creates are more important than some people realize," Shannon said in an email. "I sincerely hope that CSAS will be able to stay in place, because moving the program would truly feel like losing a piece of its soul. The building is an integral part of CSAS's origin story, and is very much tied to our identity as a school community."
The Hamilton County school board is slated to receive a final version of a 10-year plan for its $1.36 billion facilities problems from a consultant next week, but the last preliminary set of recommendations left CSAS' future "to be determined."
Check out the application for designating a building or site a local historic landmarkView
The school board hired MGT Consulting Group in December 2018 to conduct an audit of the district's 74 schools and present a plan for tackling decades of deferred maintenance and for improving operating efficiency.
A K-12 school, CSAS is home to about 1,030 Hamilton County students, but the school's building received a "poor" score of 60 out of 100 on the district's facilities audit.
The future of the district's top-performing magnet schools including CSAS, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA) and Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts (CCA) have been some of the most controversial aspects of the facilities plan, with parents coming out in droves to voice their opinions at several community meetings over the past several months.
CCA, the district's only fine arts-focused 6-12 school, is recommended to join Barger Academy of Fine Arts in a renovated building on Brainerd High School's current site. CSLA wasn't included in the latest version of the facilities plan presented to the school board on Jan. 13.
That uncertainty left Michael Laymon, a parent of a current CSAS student, worried that the district will revert back to its original plan and move CSAS onto the Brainerd High site as well, to create what district officials called "a magnet corridor" and expand the size of the school.
"The success of certain programs is based on the fact that they are small and are at small locations," Laymon said during a small group discussion at a Jan. 28 meeting at Tyner Academy. "If we're discussing the effectiveness of this, too, that's what makes it effective."
UPCOMING FACILITIES MEETINGS
— Tuesday, March 3: School board work session at 5 p.m. at Hamilton County Department of Education, 3074 Hickory Valley Road
Shannon's online petition also questions if "the current CSAS site could be sold and the students relocated to another facility."
"We all know the value of the 3rd Street site to developers, [the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] and Erlanger, and we want to protect this beautiful building we have called home for over 30 years. Contrary to popular belief, being on the National Register of Historic Places provides little to no actual protection for this or any property," the petition states.
CSAS, formerly known as Wyatt Hall, is on the National Register of Historic Places, but a local designation would be more useful for the petition's mission. Neighborhoods such as Fort Wood, St. Elmo, Battery Place and Ferger Place are designated historic neighborhoods and most construction in those areas must first go before the city's historic zoning commission.
"[It] is a beautiful, historic structure that is well worth preserving," Shannon said in an email. "Many who have attended CSAS (and Riverside High School and Chattanooga High School in the building before) recognize the significance and beauty of this building, and fear that if the property is sold to a private party that it would be demolished without concern or comment from the public. — Establishing the building as a Local Historic Landmark would give the building some real protection."
To read more about the petition, visit: www.change.org/p/chattanooga-historic-zoning-commission-protect-csas-by-making-it-a-local-landmark.
More than 6,700 people had signed the petition as of Wednesday afternoon, and Shannon said she hopes to get the application on the Historic Zoning Commission's April 16 meeting agenda.
Supporters must show that the building has "character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the community, county, state or country," is connected to someone who had significant impact on the community or is the site of a significant local, county, state or national event to be nominated.
Justin Robertson, Hamilton County Schools chief operations officer, said he wasn't sure what effect such a designation would have on the school. The program itself is not slated to be closed, but designating the school building as a historic landmark wouldn't necessarily prevent the district from deciding to relocate the school's actual academic program.
Robertson did note that CSAS supporters should expect a more concrete update on the school's future at next week's board work session on March 3.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.