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Renderings of a new location for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts dated March 2, 2020 depict a new school building, gymnasium, soccer field, playgrounds and parking lots on the former Sears site at Northgate Mall in Hixson. The renderings were presented to the Hamilton County school board during its Thursday, April 23 meeting. / Photo from Hamilton County Schools

Perhaps, the Hamilton County Board of Education has something else up its sleeve for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA).

Perhaps there is another former big-box store or large piece of property members have had in mind.

Perhaps the idea is to play the former Sears parcel at Northgate Mall they're interested in against some other property they also think might work.

Perhaps ... but probably not.

At this point, the school board is looking to vote Thursday on letters of intent on the Sears property for a new CSLA — currently housed in a leaky, dilapidated, old East Brainerd building — and on the former J.C. Penney property at the mall for a new elementary school.

The sticking point is the $6.5 million cost for the Sears property that district officials told board members only months ago would sell for $3.5 to $4 million. Several board members in a meeting Monday intimated the price increase is highway robbery, and they might have thrown in for good measure that the increase is particularly galling considering the collapsed economy as a result of the COVID-19 virus.

That said, developers Bassam Issa and John Woods, who bought the property in April after the hardly secret news broke that the school board was looking at the 15-acre Sears tract, are businessmen. Buying, selling and developing property are what they do. They have a commodity, someone wants that commodity and it is their responsibility to get the best price they can for that commodity for their investment group.

We would like to think the developers might drop the price on the property to help the local school district in such a challenging time, but we also believe paying the asking price — or near it — makes more economic sense than building an entirely new high school on property the district may or may not own.

In 2017, when school board members last were considering a new building for CSLA, an idea that has been kicked around since before the turn of the century, the price was estimated at $64 million. It had risen from $46 million just five years earlier, and that in itself was alarming to the school board.

Since then, one plan had the school moving to the current Tyner Middle School, which would have been renovated. That idea, though, was scrapped in a 10-year facilities master plan presented to the board earlier this year.

The master plan also forecasts CSLA to become a K-12 facility, which has been the plan of district officials for some time to provide more magnet school seats to parents looking for public school alternatives for their children.

As malls have decreased in popularity with the shift to online buying, the Northgate space seems ideal in being on a main thoroughfare (Highway 153 at Hixson Pike), having plenty of parking space and offering room to build out sports facilities (expected to include a gymnasium, soccer field and three playgrounds).

The district has $26 million left from what it planned to use on renovating Tyner Middle, but the cost of renovating the Sears building in time for the 2021-2022 school year is said to be $34 million.

Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd questioned that amount, suggesting it might be done for less, and we're certainly all for efficiency. But neither do we think corners should be cut to replace a school in a 71-year-old building in which thousands of children have had to attend with windows that don't seal and a lack of accessibility to people with disabilities.

The letter of intent for the J.C. Penney property is for $2.4 million, and the district is eyeing it as the new home of a school combining the current Alpine Crest, Dupont and Rivermont elementaries. The final facilities master plan had the three schools coming together in a new building on the Dupont site, but the Northgate Mall plan — the former department store offers 173,000 square feet — would certainly be less costly than a new building.

The CSLA relocation is projected as "Phase Zero" in the facilities master plan, meaning it is on the front burner of any changes the district is planning to make or is already making. The combined elementary school is in "Phase One," meaning it's not far behind. Buying both properties in essence would house five schools, the three elementaries, the existing K-8 CSLA and the expanded CSLA high school.

The Alpine Crest and Rivermont properties then could be sold, and the Dupont and CSLA properties could be held, if needed, for future considerations. Both of the latter two at times have been suggested for new or combined schools if the current ones were razed.

CSLA has waited more than two decades for a new school. It's time to make that a reality, even if the price is more than it was thought it would be several months ago. And whatever it is, it certainly will be less than an entirely new building.

And who doesn't want a Chick-fil-A, Auntie Anne's Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels or Salsarita's just steps from your high school?

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