Sohn: Proposed plan for school fixes has promise

Sohn: Proposed plan for school fixes has promise

July 26th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Change is hard. It is especially hard when it comes with sticker shock, and the long-awaited report on Hamilton County's school buildings came with both. Our schools have a $1.36 billion capital needs price tag, and even with a sweeping set of preliminary suggestions for money-saving school closures and consolidations over 10 years, the damages still tally $855 million.

Ultimately, the outside consulting firm hired to study the needs without the usual local political or community school loyalty complications has initially recommended renovating 11 schools, expanding 10 schools, constructing new buildings for three schools, and closing 15. Of those 15 potential school closures, some would be relocated, such as Normal Park, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts.

Schools that would be closed and students rezoned include Brainerd High School, Barger Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary, Dalewood Middle, Daisy Elementary, Lakeside Elementary, Lookout Mountain Elementary, Rivermont Elementary and Tyner Middle.

At first blush, many in the community — because we're all invested in our communities and our sense of community is build largely around schools — had negative reactions. District 5 Board of Education school member Karitsa Mosley Jones had such a response to the preliminary suggestion of closing Brainerd High School and Dalewood Middle School. The high school students there would move to Tyner, Howard and East Ridge. The middle school students would move to Orchard Knob. Brainerd would be renovated and repurposed as the joint location for CSAS and CSLA. Dalewood would be renovated and repurposed as the new Center for Creative Arts magnet school with added enrollment capacity.

"They're going to feel once again disenfranchised," Jones said during Tuesday's joint meeting of the school board and county commission. "The school wasn't good enough for our kids, but it's good enough to bring a magnet school in? That's a struggle for us. Those schools have been under the microscope for forever, and we have fought to prevent them from being taken over by the state, but, let's just close them anyways? That's been the biggest fear of the community. It's just, it's going to kill our community."

No. There would still be fine schools in this community. Better schools, in fact. And the Brainerd and Dalewood students could apply to attend the magnet schools. Our kids don't care what their school is called. They care about how they learn and play there.

The second shock — the sticker shock — is less easy to wrap our heads around. Our county commissioners just last month rejected a school board budget calling for a $34 million-a-year operational boost (the first in 14 years) that would have required a 34-cent property tax increase. An $855 million, 10-year schools building plan would require an even steeper property tax hike. Finding the political will for that among Hamilton County's less-than-stalwart elected officials is a steep ask.

But we're here in this very uncomfortable place because we've been here before — several times. And each time we've done nothing. We've just kicked the can down the road. And down the road. And down the road.

Folks, doing nothing is not an option.

Just as we cannot keep cooking in the same kitchen with appliances made 50, 60 and 70 years ago (and with only the groceries we can buy today for the same money we had 14 years ago), our school teachers can't use only a blackboard to educate children who will graduate high school prepared for today's tech jobs, like coding workplace robots.

Doing nothing will only worsen the educational dilemma we already face: More than 60% of our third-graders cannot read at grade level, and local employers view only about 40% of our high school graduates as jobs-ready. Those are not statistics that help Hamilton County leaders bring new jobs and workplaces to our region. In fact, those are numbers that may well drive away some the jobs we have now.

If that happens, then how will we afford schools? Then how will we grow and teach and feed our children?

This editorial was updated Friday, July 26, 2019, at 6:11 p.m. to correctly state that more than 60% — not nearly 40% — of our third-graders cannot read at grade level.

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