There is a very fine line between political will and leadership. Political will is what we lack today to take necessary but difficult actions, and leadership is what it will take to create political will.
Thus, here we are in Hamilton County with an $891 million, 10-year (at least), three-phase plan to bring our schools — the physical buildings — up to par for the 21st century, looking for both political will and leadership.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson lays out the dilemma succinctly. It's a community problem.
Educators educate. The community provides and pays for the schools. And we must find leadership to create the political will to do the community's job.
"I don't want to call it a crisis, but we are at a tipping point in our facilities situation," Johnson said during a meeting with Times Free Press reporters and editors Tuesday. "The only thing we are concerned with in regards to this is getting our children in great learning environments. That is the goal that we have set."
Johnson is understating one thing: It is a crisis. Consider it just from the dollars and cents angle.
The average school building in the school district is 40 years old, and historically the district has budgeted only about $3 million a year for deferred maintenance on all of its 74 schools. But with more than 30% of our buildings showing everything from significant structural concerns to crowded, over-capacity conditions to schools without the necessary components to support new technology, the district faces $1.36 billion in deferred maintenance needs.
Do some elementary math. Our needs are $1.36 billion, yet spending only $3 million a year wouldn't get the job done for about 453 years. We might speed that up by about 50 years if our Hamilton County commissioners approve a tax increase to give the schools $100 million for new school construction and repairs every five or 10 years — as they did in 2017.
The trouble with that approach — which until now turned on a 20-year-old system facilities audit — is obvious. We continue to have a Band-Aid approach that never accomplishes the immediate goal, let alone any reasonable parent or grandparent's long-term comprehensive goal of making sure our children have safe, not distracting, schools in which they can learn.
Last year, county leaders commissioned an outside audit of our school facilities — one that deliberately ignored politics and included county growth and projected growth patterns as well as how school buildings are used. MGT Consulting Group found 21 of the district's 74 schools are unsuitable learning environments. And guess what: Many of those schools were also deemed poor in the audit done 20 years before.
Recommendation: $891 million in school changes
* Phase one would cost nearly $378 million and include merging DuPont, Rivermont and Alpine Crest elementary schools into a new building on the current DuPont Elementary site; moving both Normal Park’s upper and lower schools into a renovated CCA building; moving CCA downtown; building a new elementary school on CSLA’s site and combining Dalewood Middle and Orchard Knob Middle into a new school on Orchard Knob Middle’s site.
* Phase two would cost at least $260 million and include renovating 15 schools, building a new Brainerd High School on the current Dalewood Middle School site and repurposing the existing Brainerd High site to house CSAS with increased student capacity.
* Phase three, the final phase, is projected to cost about $240 million and would repurpose Barger Academy of Fine Arts into a new career and technical education center; build a new elementary school in Apison; close Soddy-Daisy Middle School and send kids to a renovated Daisy Elementary site; as well as renovate nearly a dozen other schools.
Need we point out that ignoring the previous audit for 20 years means we put a generation of our children in those crumbling and concentration-robbing schools — buildings with leaky roofs, cockroaches, failing sanitary systems, drafty windows and more?
MGT recommends a three-phase plan for remedying the district's facilities needs with a hefty price tag. Over the course of the three phases, 11 new schools would be built, 33 would be renovated or receive additions, nine school sites would be closed and four schools would move to new locations.
There is a bright spot in MGT plan, which was presented to the school board on Tuesday. Auditors found that about 40% of the district's schools were considered "good" or "excellent," most of them being our most recently built elementary schools.
The recommendations came after two rounds of community meetings (including several heated ones in early December), as well as two surveys, feedback from school board members and elected officials and several focus groups with targeted audiences.
"The plan we've put together is about providing 21st century learning environments, safe and secure places, high-quality learning environments," said Mike Raisor, senior vice president of MGT's Education Solutions Group. "And we want to present you a plan that is attainable. It's going to be a heavy lift, but it's achievable."
That heavy lift brings us back to political will and leadership. Ultimately it will have to be the community — all of us who live and work and pay taxes here — who will have to create the pressure that spurs leadership to force the political will of our nine Hamilton County commissioners to find a way to fund these vital improvements.
In recent years, our county commissioners have punted by removing a proposed 34-cent tax increase from the latest operating budget request and then also nixing a proposal to let us — residents and taxpayers — vote on a possible $60 wheel tax to help fund better teacher pay.
Adding insult to injury, no county commissioners attended Tuesday night's school board meeting to hear the final MGT report — the last piece of information many of those commissioners said they needed during last year's budget cycle. The row reserved for commissioners was empty, though Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger was there. Sadly, there were few community members there.
Clearly, the community has much work to do. Perhaps that work must start with making sure there are new candidates — all looking to see school progress — lined up for our sitting commissioners' seats in two years.