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Red Bank Middle School site questioned

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School district officials and Red Bank commissioners discuss new middle school School district officials and Red Bank commissioners discuss new middle school

By David Carroll

dcarroll@wrcbtv.com

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- The proposed site for a new Red Bank Middle School is the girls softball area behind the current Red Bank High School.  But more than three years after funding was approved, no dirt has been turned, and students are still attending a 74-year-old school that is woefully outdated.

Davette Oakes has two sons, in 7th and 8th grades.  When the Hamilton County Commission approved a 26-cent property tax hike in July 2007, part of the funds were clearly earmarked for new schools in East Ridge and Red Bank.  The new East Ridge Elementary opened in August.  The energy-efficient, spacious facility makes Oakes and other parents wonder how Red Bank has been left out of the celebration.  "Its very frustrating not to have a new middle school," she says. "It was promised to us."

It's frustrating for students and teachers too.  Physical education classes are held in an ancient gymnasium, with paint peeling from the walls and ceiling, and inadequate heating and cooling systems.

Jim Wulf has taught and coached at Red Bank Middle since 1991.  He said,  "In August and September, it's not unusual for it to be 95 degrees in here. The boys complain, but I tell 'em, I've been in here all day."

There's also the issue of technology.  "It's hard to keep computers from crashing when the electrical system can't handle the load," according to Oakes.  "Our children are at a real disadvantage compared to children in the other middle schools."

THE WAIT CONTINUES

Help is on the way, but no one can say when.  Assistant Superintendent Gary Waters, who oversees construction and maintenance for Hamilton County schools,  has the plans in place, but can't give the go-ahead to builders until the federal government approves the site.  Under a deal agreed to more than 30 years ago by the city of Red Bank, the proposed site is considered a park. 

Local officials have suggested a new park site to replace it, but "approval from the feds takes time," according to Waters. He adds, "It's not just a simple matter of Red Bank and Hamilton County, they're both on board. We had to go to the state, and they have approved, but now it's up to the Department of the Interior.  They're studying it, and hopefully we're very near the end of the paperwork trail on that. Best case scenario is within three months or so."  Tuesday he told Red Bank City Commissioners that site studies and architectural drawings were complete, at a cost of some $225,000.

But until the government gives the thumbs up, the plans for the school remain on Waters' desk.  Red Bank Middle teachers and students must do the best they can with what they have. And that has caused some Red Bank elected officials to get antsy.

SECOND THOUGHTS?

Two commissioners, John Roberts and Greg Jones expressed their concerns about building a new middle school behind the current high school.  Speaking to a group that included Waters, Superintendent Jim Scales and District 2 School Board member Chip Baker, both commissioners made it clear that they felt there were many drawbacks to the current plan.  Jones cited parking and traffic concerns, while Roberts does not want to disrupt the popular girls softball program, which he says "serves girls in our community and all over the county, from spring all the way through fall." 

Mayor Monty Millard said he felt it was important to have "a plan B." He asked, "What if the federal government for some reason rejects this site?  We better have a back-up plan in place."  Millard agreed with Roberts and Jones that a previously discussed site, on north Dayton Boulevard at a now-closed Bi-Lo store should be considered.  Jones said there were "police and fire stations nearby, sewers and utilities already in place, low traffic, a four-lane highway and flat land for ball fields on 24 acres." 

While Waters said the actual plans for the school building itself could be transplanted from one location to another, there were other considerations that could prove costly, and further delay the construction process.  He said if another site was chosen, the school district would have to ask for more money from the County Commission, "and I don't know how they would respond to that."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Mayor Millard emphasized the purpose of the Tuesday meeting was not to "shake things up, or start over, but to get communication up and running since we have a new administration."  He was selected mayor by his fellow commissioners after the November election, during which then-Mayor Joe Glasscock lost his bid for re-election to the commission.  Millard pledged to schedule a town meeting, probably at the high school, shortly after the holidays so that Red Bank residents can ask questions and offer input.  He said he would hold the meeting at a time when Dr. Scales and Gary Waters can attend to answer citizens' questions.

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