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Contributed Photo by Tucker McClendon/ Paint peels on the walls of a bathroom at East Ridge High. Strand board is used in lieu of a bathorrom stall door.

The Hamilton County Schools Board of Education may soon go before the County Commission to request $10 million in recurring maintenance revenue to begin tackling nearly $1 billion in deferred building repairs.

Chairman Tucker McClendon, of East Ridge, proposed the idea Monday during a special session to approve the fiscal year 2022-23 budget.

"We have a facilities crisis," he said at the meeting and motioned to amend the budget proposal to include the $10 million ask.

Tiffanie Robinson, of Chattanooga, moved to table McClendon's amendment and submit a revised budget to county commissioners later on. Robinson's motion passed 8-1, with McClendon as the sole no vote.

At the session, McClendon presented a slideshow featuring 23 pictures of classrooms, bathrooms and hallways in various states of disrepair.

In one image, what appears to be strand board — a cheap type of manufactured wood similar to particle board — has been installed in place of a bathroom stall door. In another, a classroom's ceiling panels are spotted brown, with obvious signs of water leakage. Others show peeling paint, cracked brick walls and exposed electrical wires due to missing ceiling tiles.

Currently, the district budgets $3 million a year for capital maintenance. Of that, $970,000 supports personnel costs, leaving around $2 million for improvements and renovations, according to the district's budget plan.

McClendon called on board members to join him in a movement and do something about the district's infrastructure. While all board members agreed the facilities needed improvements, McClendon's request to ask the County Commission was met with both support and opposition.

Rhonda Thurman, of Hixson, said it would be a "hard sell" when the district saw a $12.3 million budget increase from the previous year.

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Hamilton County school board eyes funding for building repairs

"That's going to be the argument from the County Commission that we're getting that much additional money, why couldn't we put some more of that into maintenance," Thurman said Monday. "We have a lot of people out of work. Gas, groceries, everything is so hot right now. And you start talking about tax increases, it's going to be ugly in a hurry, and you will never get anything. I just think it's time that we do our due diligence on our part."

Joe Wingate, of Chattanooga, said the County Commission doesn't have to levy taxes to raise funds.

"I want to make it clear that just because the school board or the school system makes a request for funding to the County Commission, that's not automatically a burden on the taxpayer. And that is a narrative that I've listened to for six years. That bothers me. Because the county can choose to fund whatever they want to fund however they want to fund it. And does do that every year," Wingate said Monday.

MGT Consulting Group unveiled in 2019 a preliminary facilities report calling out more than $1.36 billion in capital needs across 74 district schools. The report recommended renovating 11 schools, making additions to 10 schools, building new buildings for three schools and closing 15 school buildings.

In 2020, MGT came back with a final audit, and recommended a 10-year plan to remedy the district's facilities needs at a slightly lower budget of $891 million.

The report found Hamilton County Schools' building utilization, deferred maintenance costs and the condition of buildings to be unsustainable.

MGT rated schools on a scale from 1 to 100, based on factors including school size, building and grounds condition and technology. The report found that 30% of the district's schools were poor or unsatisfactory.

Capital maintenance is not among the five priorities identified in the fiscal year 2022-23 budget. The budget allocates approximately $71 million, or 15% of the overall budget, towards efficient and effective operations, which includes adding three-and-a-half operations support positions to increase efficiencies and support in athletics, grants and data analysis and covers all obligated contracted funds for maintenance and busing contracts.

The budget plan states the district will sustain existing funding levels for investments in facility maintenance and renovations and use federal coronavirus relief funds for capital maintenance projects.

One such project is the construction of the new Tyner school, which uses $33 million of a total $91 million in third-round COVID-19 relief funds.

McClendon said even if the commission agrees to a $10 million revenue increase, it barely scratches the surface of the district's needs.

"It's not even going to fix the problem. It's going to lay the foundation so we can actually have larger discussions about how we fix the actual issue of consolidation and building new schools," McClendon said in a phone call.

He added that should taxes increase, he'd be happy to contribute.

"If they do a full tax increase, you're talking about 10 cents. Am I willing to pay an extra $20 a year to make sure that we have maintenance money to fix some of these schools and do these projects? Yes, I am. It's a hill I'm willing to die on," McClendon said.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

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