Cooper: Schools plan a lot to swallow

Cooper: Schools plan a lot to swallow

July 26th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Dalewood Middle School would become the home of Center for Creative Arts if a preliminary 10-year master plan for school facilities is adopted.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Putting the Hamilton County Department of Education's preliminary 10-year master plan before the public Tuesday was risky, but it was the right thing to do.

The school district surely learned that lesson in 2017 when it rolled out a $125 million plan for new, merged and renovated schools without allowing public input on the plan.

The public howled at the time, and it had a right to.

Nevertheless, this plan is 10 times the cost of the 2017 plan and involves 58 schools instead of a handful. It will take many weeks for the public to get its thoughts around what is proposed. That's why the school district set aside August for gathering input from stakeholders, September and October for community forums, and November and December for refining the plan and presenting final recommendations.

The plan, developed since January by Florida-based MGT Consulting Group, estimates that the cost of repairing and maintaining the district's 74 schools without any changes is $1.36 billion. By making the changes suggested in the report, the district's 10-year cost would be $855 million.

The preliminary outline would close 15 schools, renovate 11, build additions to 10, repurpose nine, relocate seven programs, replace (and rebuild) three schools and build three new ones.

It is a lot to swallow even if you don't have a child involved or never will step into one Hamilton County school.

The goal, one everyone should embrace, is to operate a more efficient school system, better using the capacity already available and making the schools safer and better ready to educate students than the one in place now.

The problem, which began to emerge Tuesday as soon as details of the plan began to leak out, is emotion. No one wants to see the school their children attend, or they attended, close. Memories, nostalgia and a sense of community are all rightly wrapped up in such emotion.

And that's what stakeholder and community meetings over the next few months will filter into the conversation. But to expect individuals will accept the plan as is — and it is thorough and excellent — is not realistic. Neither is accepting the status quo, though. The county is currently maintaining many more buildings and underusing them than should be accepted for any school district.

Take for example, the potential closing of Brainerd High School and Dalewood Middle School, hollowing out a combined 115 years of tradition for students in the Brainerd and Eastdale environs.

"It make sense, rationalewise," said District 5 Board of Education member Karitsa Mosley Jones, who represents both schools. But it feels like "disenfranchisement," is "heavy" and "will kill us."

On the other hand, Brainerd is currently being used at 55% of its capacity and Dalewood at 52%.

To look at the situation another way, the Brainerd High building and its site, under the plan, would become the homes of magnet schools Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences (CSAS) and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA), two of the district's highest performing schools. The building and the site would accommodate another 600 students in grades 6-12 than the number now attending CSAS, and a new building there would afford another 700 than the number now attending CSLA.

Students now zoned for Brainerd or Dalewood would have opportunities to attend these still-close-by schools and perhaps experience a more challenging education than they would have had otherwise.

Similarly, at Dalewood, where the plan has Center for Creative Arts moving, students in the Brainerd area who may not have wanted to attend the program across the Tennessee River may find their niche at a high performing magnet school now close by their house.

Come December, we don't imagine the county or the school board will be ready to sign off on anything that comes near $1.36 billion or even $855 million over 10 years. But some specifics in the plan have been on previous facilities blueprints, and others make sense without having to move too many pieces in the puzzle or draw on too much emotion.

As Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson noted during Tuesday's joint school board-Hamilton County Commission meeting, "We're not concluding a conversation; we're starting a conversation."

As much emotion as the preliminary plan may have elicited, and as many conversations as it may have started, it is nonetheless a starting point. It was prepared by individuals free of bias about any school or community and was created with the goal of improving capacity, making the district more efficient and allowing children to attend safer and better maintained schools.

As such, we hope the public — given the emotion implicit in change — will consider how the plan improves the entire district and even increases opportunities for those willing to embrace them.

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