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Hamilton County schools struggle with building needs

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Joe Galloway, Rhonda Thurman and Rick Smith Joe Galloway, Rhonda Thurman and Rick Smith

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- It took only forty-five minutes for Hamilton County School Board members to emerge from a Facilities Committee meeting, shaking their heads. "I don't know where the money will come from," said one. "There's no use asking for anything in my district," said another. "The needs are too great in other parts of the county."

The responses were not surprising, considering the bleak information they had just received. The school district's needs are great, and its financial resources are meager. Although new schools are less than a year away for Red Bank Middle and Ooltewah Elementary (and two years away at East Brainerd Elementary), population growth in the Signal Mountain, Sale Creek and East Hamilton areas will likely challenge school administrators to find space for students in the next few years.

"Let's start getting ahead"

Board chairman Mike Evatt emphasized, "For too long, our schools have reacted too late to neighborhood growth and new subdivisions. We need to start staying ahead of the growth. We know where people are moving. We ought to build schools there before it's too late," he said. Evatt led the meeting, along with Assistant Superintendent Gary Waters. Others present included Board members Joe Galloway, Rhonda Thurman and Donna Horn, along with Superintendent Rick Smith.

Central and Brainerd repairs underway

Waters got the meeting off to a positive start by listing "some good things that are going on." He reported the roof repairs and replacement at frequently-soaked Central High School are "60 to 70 percent complete." He said work at the school's main building should be complete by the middle of December, and the school-wide work should be finished by the time students return from the holidays. This came as good news for Central principal Finley King, who said, "This is great. It means we can stop worrying about leaks, mops, buckets and damaged equipment, and go about the business of having school."

Waters also described the replacement of Brainerd High's HVAC system as 20 percent complete. "Like Central's roof, this is emergency work that had to be done," he said. "It will probably be another year before the work at Brainerd is complete, but it couldn't wait any longer. And there will be similar situations like this in other parts of the county. Our buildings are wearing out, and we don't have enough money to fix them all."

He also commended contractors and sub-contractors who are working on the new buildings for Red Bank Middle and Ooltewah Elementary. "They're working 6 or 7 days a week in some cases, and these schools will open on schedule." He said Red Bank's new school should be finished by May, while work on the Ooltewah facility will continue closer to the August 2013 start of school.

Sale Creek: additions or new school?

District 1 Board member Rhonda Thurman continued her recent push for additional space for Sale Creek Middle/High, where middle school students have been housed in portable buildings for the past two years. Waters stated the pros and cons of a new building vs. additions to the current Sale Creek school. The school district has 129 acres of land available near North Hamilton Elementary, but sewage issues may have to be addressed. He added that Sale Creek's current property cannot handle the school's athletic needs, which include the establishment of a new high school football program. He urged Board members to "talk seriously about Sale Creek," which is currently slated for additions. Supt. Smith said, "If we decide on a new school instead, that might push the timetable back, because of the added expense."

The East Brainerd/Ooltewah dilemma

Waters also noted that Wolftever Creek Elementary is "at capacity," in need of a multi-purpose room, a music room and several classrooms. Evatt noted new home construction near Wolftever, "and this one of those areas we need to get ahead of." Waters said "I'm thankful that Ooltewah Elementary will open next year. It will start with around 700 students on opening day, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it reach its capacity of 1100 before too long." He said the same could be true of the new East Brainerd Elementary, which opens in August 2014.

New construction on Signal Mountain is also a hot topic among Board members. "Nolan Elementary is at full capacity right now," Waters said. "They need some additions today." Smith added that new homes are underway near Signal Mountain Middle/High, and that the four-year-old school will likely require additions with five to ten years.

CSLA: still on back burner

The Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts (CSLA) has been on the district's Facilities Improvement plans since the 1990s, and remains mired there today. Currently listed in Phase 2 (to begin construction with 3-5 years), administrators are recommending a new facility to expand the schools K-8 program into high school. "People don't realize this school serves every district," Smith said, pointing the popular magnet school's county-wide reach. "And a new school would relieve overcrowding in the East Brainerd area, and would actually help the whole county." Still, no money has been set aside for the project, and it has yet to make "Phase 1," having been bypassed by other new school construction for the past 13 years.

Smith also discussed other Phase 2 projects, including a new school behind the current Ganns-Middle Valley Elementary, which would replace that school and the nearby century-old Falling Water Elementary. The current Hillcrest and Harrison Elementary schools would also close during the next 3-5 years (pending approval and funding), so that a new school could be built across from the current Harrison Elementary, near Brown Middle School on Highway 58.

Smith said Lakeside Academy is in need of renovations, citing numerous portable buildings, and Soddy-Daisy Middle "hasn't had any work done in more than thirty years." But he also said that a Phase 3 (5-10 years) project may have to be accelerated: the need for a middle school near the new East Hamilton Middle High. Talks have centered around a possible new middle school near Apison Elementary, and Smith speculated that it may be needed sooner than first anticipated. Evatt repeated, "This is what I'm talking about. We need to start getting ahead."

Tyner schools: empty space?

Thurman said, "I will probably get in trouble for saying this, but why aren't we talking about Tyner Middle and High Schools. I remember when 900 students were in that high school building, and it's not anywhere near full now. Before we start building new schools, shouldn't we fill up the ones we have now?" (County school records show Tyner High has a capacity of 800 students, with a current enrollment of 531; Tyner Middle's capacity is 600, with an enrollment of 466).

Waters encouraged Board members to meet soon, and frequently to begin charting a course for the future. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. We have so many building needs, safety needs and athletic needs. I'd like to see this Board become more proactive."

Evatt agreed, saying "I can't see any of these Phase 2 projects getting funding any time soon. We need to approach the County Commission about these situations at Wolftever and Nolan."

Commissioner Henry: "we need to talk"

But according to Commission Chairman Larry Henry, that communication has not yet taken place. "I meet with my Board member every month or so, but as far as any kind of long-range plans of what they need, they're not communicating that with me. They could do a lot better on communicating with the County Commission, we're their funding source  They're talking about $255 million dollars, and that's going to require a lot of work." Henry said he was unaware of any upcoming meetings between the School Board and the Commission. "It sounds like we need to talk," Henry said.

PHASE ONE  (0-4 YEARS):  Additions to Snow Hill, Nolan and Wolftever Creek; replacement schools for Red Bank Middle and Ooltewah Elementary (fall 2013) and East Brainerd (fall 2014)

PHASE TWO (3-5 YEARS):  New school to replace Ganns/Falling Water; New school to replace Harrison/Hillcrest; New school to replace CSLA (K-12); Renovations at Lakeside and Soddy Daisy Middle

PHASE THREE (5-10 YEARS): New middle school in East Brainerd/Apison area; additions to Central High (new gym and classrooms), additions to Signal Mtn. Middle High; new school to replace Alpine DuPont and Rivermont.

TOTAL COST (ESTIMATED) $255 MILLION

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