By David Carroll
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- Hamilton County School Board members are bracing for another bad-news budget, according to Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz.
At the annual retreat, held at AGC headquarters in Chattanooga, Kranz told the Board he'd "like to wish them a Merry Christmas, but it looks like more coal in the stockings again."
Last year in Nashville, Kranz startled Board members with details of a $20 million deficit for the 2009-10 budget year, which resulted in job cuts, school closings and an early retirement incentive plan.
MORE CUTS AHEAD?
He said the next budget, to be presented in the spring of 2010, "could include more cuts," with a projected shortfall of "almost 14 million dollars in the best case scenario." He warned that lower-than-projected revenues from property and sales tax money, the threat of budget cuts at the state level, employee pay raises, health care increases, storm water fees and additional hires at Signal Mountain and East Hamilton schools could drive the deficit even higher.
Kranz also said the District's fund balance had slipped from $18 million to $12 million as a result of the early retirement program, and that the Maintenance Department needs $13,825,000 in "deferred maintenance money that just isn't there." He said when everything is factored in, the total shortfall "is more like $26 million."
He added, "You can't overlook technology. Of our 17,000 computers, 10,000 of them are old. Some of them are running Windows 95. We don't have the bandwidth to do the classroom programming we need to do, and as a system, we can't do business efficiently with the aging technology we have today."
The CFO says he's hopeful "that by fiscal year 2012, we'll start to see some positive financial impact from the Volkswagen plant, but between now and then, we have some difficult decisions to make."
SIX NEW SCHOOLS NEEDED
Earlier, Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith unveiled what he called "an aggressive facilities plan that we need to start talking about now." He said "Bradley County is already ahead of us in planning new school construction in time for Volkswagen."
The facilities plan includes six new schools, which would require a bond issue "in the neighborhood of $150 million," according to Assistant Superintendent Gary Waters. In order of priority, the new schools would be:
1. REPLACEMENT FOR OOLTEWAH ELEMENTARY: to be built south of Apison Pike and west of Ooltewah Ringgold Road. It would relieve overcrowding at Westview, Apison and East Brainerd, and provide space for anticipated Volkswagen-related growth. The current Ooltewah Elementary was built in 1959, and the location, near a recently opened Walmart, is believed to have strong commercial potential.
2. NEW LEE HIGHWAY SCHOOL: to be built north of Lee Highway in Ooltewah, to relieve overcrowding at Smith and Snow Hill schools, and to handle new VW growth. Rick Smith estimated the enrollment for both this school, and the Ooltewah Elementary replacement, "would be 800-900 students."
3. REPLACEMENT FOR FALLING WATER/GANNS: Two of the oldest schools in the county "need to be replaced," according to Smith. Falling Water was built in 1912 (with additions since) and Ganns Middle Valley was built in 1937. Smith said, "their oak floors are beautiful, but when people walk on them, you can't hear anything." The plan would consolidate the two schools at an undetermined location. Many Falling Water students who live on Daisy Mountain would likely be rezoned for Soddy Elementary.
4. REPLACEMENT FOR ALPINE CREST/DUPONT/RIVERMONT: 3 more aging schools would be consolidated. Alpine Crest was built in 1957, DuPont in 1959, and Rivermont in 1954. District 3 Board member Everett Fairchild says there's room for expansion on the DuPont property, and says if the District closes the school, the property would revert back to the DuPont company, which provided the property for the school fifty years ago. Administrators agreed that every effort should be made to consider that site for construction or expansion when consolidating the three schools.
5. REPLACEMENT FOR HARRISON/HILLCREST: Both Harrison (built in 1939) and Hillcrest (built in 1948) are in decaying buildings, and both have experienced declining enrollment in recent years. A new school would consolidate the two, as well as the attendance zone of Lakeside Academy, which is between them on Highway 58. Lakeside would remain open as a dedicated magnet school.
6. NEW BUILDING FOR CSLA: The last remaining building slated for replacement on a 1999 Facilities plan, property near the current school (38 acres) has long been available, but construction has never been considered by the School Board. The 2009 plan would expand the popular magnet school, now K-8, to a K-12 school. Board Chairman Kenny Smith, who represents District 8 where the school is located, called it "in dire need of replacement." It was built in 1948. Rick Smith pointed out that after 8th grade, most of its students go to CSAS, so a high school expansion at CSLA would result in more space for CSAS as well. Gary Waters estimated the cost of a new CSLA, "in today's money would be 40-45 million dollars."
CURRENT FACILITY NEEDS
Rick Smith said the six new buildings, combined with the closings and consolidations, would result in a net loss of three schools in Hamilton County. He said that while the new school proposals are ambitious, they will not meet the needs of the District in the coming years. He also said that East Hamilton Middle/High, which opened in August of 2009, is already overcrowded, "and as much as I hate to say this, we may need to revisit the zoning there soon." He said growth in the northern part of the county had resulted in overcrowding at Sale Creek Middle/High, "where the entire middle school program is in metal buildings."
He said the success of the adult high school, Hamilton County High (the old Harrison Bay Vocational School), underscores the need for two additional adult high schools in other parts of the county. Board members suggested using two recently closed schools, 21st Century in Brainerd, and the old Hixson Middle School, as possible locations.
GYMNASIUMS AND SOFTBALL FIELDS
District 6 Board member Janice Boydston argued that Lookout Valley Middle/High "is still the only high school in the county without a gym," and Smith agreed that "extracurricular facilities" are in the plan as well. District 1 Board member Rhonda Thurman made the same case for Soddy-Daisy High School, which despite numerous championship teams, still does not have a girls softball field.
Gary Waters and Rick Smith said they had toured the recently closed David Brainerd Christian Academy. Waters said, "It has excellent athletic facilities, inside and out, but I have some concerns because of construction issues. We build our facilities to last 70 years, and this is not quite up to our standards. And their philosophy was different from ours. Their classrooms are very small, so it might best work as a magnet program rather than a regular school. They also do not have a cafeteria."
WATERS: LET'S NOT FORGET WHAT WE'VE ACCOMPLISHED
Waters commended Board members and County Commissioners, past and present, "for investing $310 million in facilities since the merger of city and county schools in 1997. While we're talking about all the challenges we face, we really should step back and celebrate the good things we've accomplished together."
In other topics, Board members critiqued themselves and the administration of Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales. In exchanges that were occasionally heated, the District's math program, principal selection and communication with the public came under fire.
District 3 Board member Everett Fairchild said, "I wonder why all these schools that make F's aren't looking at the schools that make all A's, and copy what they're doing. They must be doing something right, so why aren't we using them as a guide for our failing schools?"
District 1 Board member Rhonda Thurman cited complaints from teachers "from my district and throughout the county. They're having to teach like robots. They're not allowed to be flexible. They cannot be creative. Principals will write them up if they're not teaching the same thing at the same time, as the teacher next door. Where's the common sense?"
Directing her comments to Dr. Scales, she said "You're replacing principals at good schools with people from failing schools. Falling Water Elementary has made straight A's for years. The principal retired, and you bring in someone who's never been a principal, from a failing school, and what's the first thing she tells the teachers? That they have to be retrained. That's nuts!"
She added that several teachers had told her that their principals had instructed them to "no longer teach spelling, because it's not relevant to TCAP tests. They say spelling is not important. And they're being told to do whatever it takes to promote students to the next grade and make sure they graduate, whether they're ready or not. That's educational fraud!"
Dr. Scales told Mrs. Thurman that no such directives had come from his office, and invited any teacher with similar complaints to call him. He said principals and teachers use "pacing guides" to stay on task with their classroom curriculum. District 4 member George Ricks told Dr. Scales that "teachers are afraid to call you because their principal will find out and they fear retaliation." Dr. Scales replied, "I have an open door, everybody knows that, and there will not be any retaliation toward anyone who brings their concerns to me."
JANICE VS. RHONDA
Most Board members sat silently while Mrs. Thurman criticized Dr. Scales and his administrators, but Janice Boydston later seemed to be aiming her comments at her fellow Board member when she said, "We don't need to be micro-managing. We should have unity on this Board. We have to trust our leadership to do the job we hired him to do."
Mrs. Thurman responded, "You can call it micro-managing if you want to, but I'm elected to represent the taxpayers, and I don't take that lightly. I'm responsible for spending their money, and I don't believe in throwing it away, giving it to consultants who overcharge us, and pad their pocketbooks. I work fifty hours a week, and I'm not a public relations person for Hamilton County Schools. We pay a person a whole lot of money to do that job, but that's not my job. I'm not going to lie to the taxpayers of this county. I'm not going to put on a happy face and tell them that our math scores are great, and that our programs are working, because they're not. It's garbage in, garbage out."
She added, "This constant re-training of teachers and principals is just keeping them out of their schools and their classrooms. You can't find a principal in a school on Wednesdays, because you're training them, and re-training them. They're always confused, because you just stop one thing, then start another. It makes no sense! Who's responsible for this madness at Central Office? We switch principals around all the time, but no one is held accountable at Central Office. You have a bunch of sacred cows there, and they never get moved around, or demoted. I saw those test scores. We're in a crisis, and no one seems to care!"
OTHER BOARD MEMBER COMMENTS
District 4 Board member George Ricks said, "I wish we could get more money for the city for the schools that are in Chattanooga. They stopped contributing years ago, but we could sure use their help." Several Board members agreed, but said almost in unison, "That's not gonna happen." Ricks commented on the growing Hispanic student enrollment in his district, and Rick Smith said, "It's not just in one district. In fact, it's not just in East Lake, East Side and East Ridge. The Hispanic population is growing tremendously all over the county and that presents all sorts of challenges, from language issues, to making sure they have all their shots, to finding enough teachers for them."
District 3 Board member Chip Baker criticized Dr. Scales for what he called "a lack of focus." Referring to frequent principal training sessions, Baker said, "Do they know what the focus of the School District is? Do they know what you're trying to accomplish? Some of them seem frustrated to me. It's easy to introduce a bunch of new programs, but if they're coming out of these meetings without a clear focus or vision, we're really not getting anywhere." Dr. Scales agreed saying, "they will be focused. It will be laser-like."
The Board agreed to hold a work session on January 7, 2010 at 5 p.m. to further discuss the new facilities plan.