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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Aged windows are a concern at Tyner Academy. Tyner Academy Principal Gerald Harris gave the Times Free Press a tour of the school's facilities on December 6, 2019.

Ahead of the next round of community meetings to discuss a consultant's recommendations for Hamilton County's school facilities, most local leaders agree that the county needs to make significant investments in building new or renovating existing school buildings.

More than 90% of business, civic and government leaders who responded to a new Power Poll said more investment is required to address what school district leaders have called "a facilities crisis."

Many of the poll respondents emphasized that education is, or should be, the top priority for Hamilton County right now.

"Education is the single most critical priority in Hamilton County. It needs to stay at the top of the agenda until we lead in all areas," said Tim Kelly, owner of Kelly Subaru and co-founder and chairman of the Chattanooga Football Club, in response to the poll.

Mark McKnight, president and CEO of Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center, echoed Kelly.

"Education should be the focus of every politician in the city right now. Private citizens and public nonprofits need to consider what they can do to help the public school system," he said.

Of the 75 leaders polled, 64 said Hamilton County should explore alternative ways to create revenue streams to pay for school capital projects, such as a sales tax bump, user or impact fees or the creation of public-private partnerships or 501(c)(3) organizations.

This response is even stronger than the 73% of some of the same local leaders who polled in favor of a tax increase for public schools last May.

But Sheila Boyington, co-founder and president of Thinking Media, said Hamilton County residents also need to support increased investment.

"Although we should look for alternative ways for funding, we as a community need to acknowledge this need and support appropriate tax increases as well," Boyington said in response to the poll. "As someone who has had a chance to review in detail the budget of the school system, we have seen there is very little waste in their spending. We need to stand for a strong educational system for our children, our workforce and our region."

County Commissioner Tim Boyd, of District 8, disagrees with raising taxes. Boyd was one of five commissioners who voted down County Mayor Jim Coppinger's initial budget request last summer that included a 34-cent property tax rate increase to fund public schools.

"We need to use a significant percentage of the tax revenue year-to-year growth money and allocate it for debt service on Hamilton County Department of Education [capital projects]," Boyd said in response to the poll. "Stop using 100% of the growth money for operational expenses. HCDE will never stop using 100% of the growth money to expand their operations without taking adequate care of the facilities we have."

Earlier this month, Hamilton County school board members received an updated set of recommendations from MGT Consulting Group for how to address the district's $1.36 billion worth of deferred maintenance.

The initial preliminary report recommended an $855 million plan that included renovating 11 schools, adding to 10 schools, building new buildings for three schools, and closing 15 school buildings, but the new set of recommendations proposes an $869 million plan in response to community feedback gathered at several community meetings in December.

The updated proposal decreases the number of schools that would be closed and changes the final destination for schools including Brainerd High School, Barger Academy of Fine Arts and the Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts.

But more than 74% of Power Poll respondents said the district should reduce or consolidate its 74 schools.

Edna Varner, longtime educator and senior adviser for the Public Education Fund, worried that the district's current facilities plan is not ideal.

"Of course the district should reassess facilities' use; however, this current plan is not the way. With this great opportunity to significantly reduce segregation, the plan chooses rather to disperse students of color to separate other buildings while keeping schools with higher concentrations of white students intact," Varner said in response to the poll. "I do not believe this community wants another round of injustices when we are so capable of doing what is best for all children."

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

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