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Hamilton School Board, Commissioners break the ice

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 It was a long time coming, but talks between the Hamilton County School Board, and the County Commission have resumed.  The relationship has been strained since the unification of Chattanooga City and Hamilton County schools in 1997.  Previous superintendents Jesse Register and Jim Scales often found themselves at odds with the Commission, which determines funding for school district programs.

Superintendent Rick Smith and School Board chairman George Ricks have made it a priority to heal the rift, proposing quarterly community meetings.  The first was held Wednesday at Battle Academy in downtown Chattanooga.  Five Commissioners and four School Board members joined Smith and other school officials to discuss facility needs and proposed security improvements.

Smith reported that the new East Brainerd Elementary School is now 55 percent complete, and is on schedule for an August 2015 opening.  He said the K-5 school would likely open at capacity, with some 1100 students.  The next major project, a new elementary school to replace Ganns Middle Valley and Falling Water schools, will break ground soon with a scheduled opening in August 2016.  That school is also likely to open with a full house of 980 students.  Smith said students from those school's zones, as well as some from McConnell, Allen and Daisy school zones could be affected by the new zoning.  He said "conversations" with parents will begin during the next few weeks.

School officials also updated Commissioners on other projects approved in the most recent budget vote.  Sale Creek Middle/High will soon get an "extensive addition" according to Smith.  Sale Creek's middle school students, currently housed in portable buildings, will have 14 new classrooms, a new cafeteria, new restrooms, and a new multi-purpose room.  That project is now in the design stage, and construction will begin in summer 2015.

Major work is also coming soon to Wolftever Creek Elementary and Nolan Elementary. 

Smith noted the growth in several inner city schools, including Howard, East Lake, East Side, Clifton Hills and Donaldson.  He said the Hispanic population had "exploded" in those zones, resulting in the hiring of several new English Language Learning teachers.

The two most glaring needs, according to Smith, are new buildings in the eastern part of the county.  The long-delayed Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts replacement, first recommended in 1999, is still on the drawing board, but unfunded.  Smith described the school's East Brainerd Road location as "ideal," saying land is already available, and a new K-12 CSLA would satisfy the current demand for more slots in the magnet school, and enable it to continue to draw from "every district in the county," relieving overcrowding at other schools in the process.

He also emphasized the need for a stand-along East Hamilton Middle School.  The current East Hamilton Middle-High is the largest school in the county, and Smith said property is available for a new middle school about two miles away on the Apison Elementary property.  That project, like CSLA, has yet to be funded.

District 1 Board member Rhonda Thurman, who works near Harrison Elementary School, reminded the panel that the Harrison building, at 77 years of age, is also due for replacement.  Smith agreed, and said that property currently being cleared behind Central High School could eventually house a large elementary school to replace or supplement nearby Harrison, Lakeside and Hillcrest schools. 

Smith also emphasized the need for a new entrance road to Daisy Elementary, which shares a narrow entrance/exit with neighboring Soddy-Daisy HIgh School. 

Panel members discussed the proposed purchase of state-of-the-art security cameras for all district schools.  Less than half of county schools currently have working security cameras, and many of those are outdated.  Smith says new cameras can identify faces and license plates, unlike some old equipment, "which can show us someone's at the school, but we can't make out who they are."  He noted the recent vandalism at Westview Elementary could have prevented, or at least minimized with modern security cameras.  Smith says he plans to present the security camera purchase proposal in January to the Commission, asking that funds from the recent $2.2 million sale of the old Ooltewah Elementary property be used.

He said another future revenue source could come from the eventual sale of the current East Brainerd Elementary property, after the new school opens in 2015.

The wish list discussed by Smith and other school officials is a lengthy, costly one.  The two proposed new schools (CSLA and East Hamilton Middle) would cost around $100 million alone.  County Commissioners who say a property tax hike in 2015 is extremely unlikely, say they hope funds from county revenue growth, or from issuing new bonds, would jump-start construction.  However, county government officials have made no moves to issue bonds, and say it's too early to predict if or when such action would be taken this year. 

School Board members and Commissioners say they will meet again in February, but no date or location has been announced.  Superintendent Smith will present his budget presentation to county officials in May.

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