HOW TO HELP
* Replacement seats in the CSAS auditorium cost $225 apiece, with an additional $5 charge for an attached donor plaque (“In honor of …,” “In memory of …”). Donations are tax deductible. Checks may be mailed to CSAS (with “auditorium seats” on the memo line) to 865 E. Third St., Chattanooga, Tenn. 37403. Contributors who are seeking a donor plaque should attach a notes, detailing the dedication.
* CSAS also is attempting to raise $2,000 to help restore the auditorium’s proscenium. Contributions toward that effort may be made in the same way, with “proscenium” listed in the memo space.
When a school district has a $200 million maintenance backlog, auditorium seats are not going to be at the front of the line.
With that in mind, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences has had to begin its own campaign to replace the seating in the nearly 1,100-seat Creed Bates Memorial Auditorium.
Principal Jim Boles believes the seats are original to the 1921 building and for a time broke faster than they could be repaired.
"I'd sit on a seat and break it, then sit on [another] seat and break it," he said. "Some of them are splintered; on some, the handle is broken. I've ripped many suit pockets on them. Many others have, too — students and parents."
For the past decade, the school has been taking wooden seats from its balcony to repair the ones on the main floor. It also has gotten replacements parts from schools that closed.
"We have to mix and match to make it work," Boles said.
It's a shame Hamilton County Schools students have to attend such patchwork schools, but it's fortunate the system has a maintenance staff that does the best it can with only $3 million in annual maintenance allocations for all schools.
"They've done a good job of trying to maintain it the best they can," Boles said, specifically acknowledging a "sweep team" that comes through every spring to do work like that on the auditorium seats.
"Since then," he said, "we're in a much better situation. But we're running out of materials to continue to do that."
Boles isn't bitter, calling it "frustrating," "part of the game" and "something we've come to accept" but acknowledges maintenance issues will be a continuing struggle unless something changes regarding financial support for public schools.
"It's not the school district," he said. "People want something for nothing — great schools, great facilities. But you can't do that when you're not willing to pay for education. That's repeatedly the message our county continues to give."
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith campaigned to add $34 million to the schools' budget last spring — some of which would have gone to maintenance — but did not find overwhelmingly public support or assistance from either Mayor Jim Coppinger or the Hamilton County Commission.
So Boles is hoping students who attended the nearly century-old building — at Chattanooga High (1921-1963), Riverside High (1963-1983) or CSAS (1986-present) — will want to get involved.
"We're hoping [among] the three," he said, "it's something we can definitely achieve and make into something everybody is really proud of."
If the school were built today, Boles said, it probably wouldn't get an auditorium.
"It's an old auditorium, but beautiful, one of the top auditoriums in the city," he said. "The proscenium could be as beautiful as that at the Tivoli [Theatre]. We want to preserve that. It's a gem."
Since the school is on the National Register of Historic Places, Boles said the school is trying to do everything it can to keep the integrity of the building. So the existing metal auditorium chair frames will remain, and the seats that are replaced will be wooden. "Anything that can be reused will be reused," he said. However, new seats will be "a little bit wider for a little bit wider Americans."
As the replacements are made, he said, every third seat in every other row will have a fold-up desktop to accommodate takers of ACT tests.
The auditorium, named for Bates, a longtime City High principal, "is a central part of our school," Boles said. "We want to make it a place where people want to have their performances."
Since the county has replaced the aging windows at CSAS and made the "safety incredibly better," he said, other than the auditorium, the stadium stands (considerably older than those recently condemned at East Ridge High School) and the lack of a phone or intercom system, the school is in "pretty good shape. It is what it is for an old building."
Boles says his fellow principals mention maintenance needs at their schools, but they all understand that stadiums, ball fields and auditoriums will be taking a back seat for the foreseeable future.
"The focus," he said, "is on academics and being able to meet the demands of federal and state mandates. Academics is the priority."
Thus, he said, if actor and Riverside High graduate Samuel L. Jackson would like to make a contribution of new seats to his alma mater, he'd be all ears.
And if county residents want to get off their wallets to fund local schools, even better.