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CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Members of four Bradley County elected bodies met over lunch Wednesday to hash out how to pay for about $38 million in immediate schools needs.

The Bradley County Schools system has a short list of needs that amounts to about $26 million.

"We have building needs, and one of them is Lake Forest [Middle School]," said county school board Chairman Charlie Rose, who taught at Lake Forest for 30 years. "It is a maintenance nightmare."

The school, which opened in 1976 and was built for elementary and middle school students, includes 17 buildings. County officials want to replace the academic buildings with one large classroom building and keep the remaining buildings, including the gymnasium and cafeteria.

Overcrowding

They also want more space at Walker Valley High School. Built for 1,200 students, it now has more than 1,500. And officials want to replace Blue Springs Elementary School, lost in the 2011 tornadoes, Rose said.

Members of the Cleveland City Council, the Bradley County Commission and the city and county school boards talked about the needs during the roundtable at the Mountain View Inn.

"This is one issue where we are really joined at the hip," Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said in his opening remarks.

Fast population growth is fueling the immediate need for another elementary school in the city system, Director Martin Ringstaff said.

"Rezoning is not the answer," he said. "You can't rezone overcrowded schools into other overcrowded schools."

polls here 1443

Push for wheel tax

County Commission Chairman Louie Alford said the solution is passage of a $32 wheel tax in August by county voters.

"If that goes through, it should give us some additional money for some of these projects and pay down the school debt," Alford said.

Commissioner Jeff Morelock said a $32 wheel tax will not generate enough income to do all that.

A property tax increase of a few cents would be cheaper for taxpayers and generate the needed money, City Councilman Bill Estes said.

In response to a question about what would happen if voters turn down the wheel tax, Alford said, "There is no plan B."

Commissioner Terry Caywood said the next alternative is a property tax increase.

Commissioner Jeff Yarber then noted that the City Council "has the power to raise its own property taxes."

Others said all four elected bodies should get behind selling the wheel tax to the public, and Councilman Dale Hughes said each should approve a resolution saying that.

But those resolutions should tell voters exactly how the money would be spent, whether on immediate needs or to pay down the county's $65 million school debt, city school board member Dawn Robinson said.

Commissioner Adam Lowe said some voters in his district see paying down the debt as an immediate need, too, .

Contact Randall Higgins at rhiggins@timesfreepress.com or 423-314-1029.

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