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Staff File Photo By C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts is likely to be in its new home sometime in 2022.

"Hallelujah, yes!"

With those words, Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd voted last week in favor of a resolution authorizing the county to spend about $30.7 million with TriCon Inc. for a new home for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA).

The 9-0 vote was the culmination of work the District 8 commissioner has done during his nearly 11 years on the commission in trying to get the magnet school out of its crumbling, nearly 75-year-old building on East Brainerd Road.

The vote accepting the bid includes both renovation work on the former 92,000-square-foot Lakeside Elementary School off Highway 58 and a new, 50,000-square-foot addition that will accommodate what eventually will be a 1,000-student K-12 school.

When the Hamilton County Board of Education voted to relocate CSLA to the school last August, Boyd said the site wasn't his first choice but was "the best we could do with what we currently have."

Last week, when commissioners voted to approve money for the renovation/build, the commissioner reflected on the school, which supporters have sought to replace since 1999.

"It is one of the worst physical buildings we have in the county that we were teaching kids out of," Boyd said at last week's commission meeting. "I just want to commend the Board of Education and our architects and faculty and staff of CSLA in doing a fantastic job. We even talked about in budget hearings how much a new K-12 might cost, and the numbers are $50, $60, $70 million. We're going to get a K-12 on a great campus — repurpose this campus — for half that money."

The great majority of the money — $25 million — will come from a 2017 bond issue. The rest, officials said, would come from energy savings and from federal stimulus funds.

Soaring building prices alone were reason enough not to delay action on the project, which several school board members had advocated last summer.

Tucker McClendon, the District 8 school board member who represents the school, said at the time the choice was a "tough but smart decision that is within our means."

The $30 million — already about 15% higher than last summer's $26.5 million estimate — nevertheless was significantly less than a total new build on the current side or than renovating the former Sears building at Northgate Mall, which had been the previous suggestion to relocate the school.

"I told the developers [that idea] was dead on arrival," Boyd said.

Before that, a 2019 audit of county education facilities by MGT Consulting Group had first suggested a new building for CSLA on the campus of Brainerd High School and then suggested it move to the current site of Dalewood Middle School.

Following the bond issue, a district proposal had it scheduled to move to the current Tyner Middle School, which, under the plan at the time, would have moved across the street with the underused Tyner High School.

Earlier in 2017, Boyd offered a "comprehensive action plan" that suggested the school move to the Dalewood site in a plan that would have Dalewood combine with Brainerd High at the latter's site.

He said while that plan was "a hard pill to swallow," he was just trying to jump-start the conversation. He said Monday he believes his plan eventually led to the district proposal to move the school to Tyner Middle.

Months before that, Boyd said, he almost become convinced "this is never going to happen."

But the high-performing school will have its new home after spending at least one more year at its current site.

After last week's vote, Hamilton County Schools facilities director Justin Witt said work by the Cleveland, Tennessee-based TriCon on the former Lakeside building can begin immediately. Work on the renovation should be finished bythe summer of 2022, he said, and work on the new addition should be done by Christmas break of 2022.

The school district is currently adding portable buildings at the current site to accommodate a larger student body when CSLA expands to grades K-9 in the fall.

"I hated [eventually] losing CSLA out of my district," Boyd said, "but I hated it even more [for students and teachers] to work in that incredibly poor environment."

While CSLA (as Elbert Long Elementary) was built in 1949 and Lakeside in 1959, he said the latter is in much better shape. He said its reinforced-concrete, poured-in-place "bones" make buildings of that era "indestructible."

"But," Boyd said, "you have to maintain them. That's what I keep telling them."

"This is a great effort how we can repurpose these buildings and save the community money and give kids a great facility ," he said, "and I just thank everybody involved and look forward to the ribbon-cutting on this one."

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