It's a battle that never ends. Hamilton County School Board members and County Commissioners constantly squabble over school construction funding. District 8 board member, David Testerman expresses the frustration felt by many. "What we have right now is broken," he said. We've got to do something different than what we've done for the last forty years."
Most recently, board members gave commissioners a wish list of school replacement projects that includes new buildings for Harrison Elementary, and Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts. CSLA battles rodents and leaks, while Harrison's hallways have been backed up with sewage. Both schools date back to the 1940s, and are considered beyond repair, but no new construction has been approved. County Commissioner Tim Boyd wants his colleagues and state legislators to find funding outside of property tax hikes.
Boyd said, "We've got the best delegation in the state. They need to change the rules, without the threat that every time we talk about increasing property tax when we're adding a school."
Hamilton County has other schools that date back more than 60 years, including Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences, and both Normal Park schools. They get patched up regularly, but their expiration date isn't too far away.
Meanwhile, just across the Georgia state line, less than ten minutes from Hamilton County, sits a majestic new building. When first-time visitors approach Saddle Ridge Elementary and Middle School, their reaction is the same. Testerman calls it "amazing." Boyd's word is "awesome."
Saddle Ridge opened in 2013. It's Walker County's newest school. The county's oldest, Ridgeland High, opened in 1989. Unlike Hamilton County in Tennessee, Walker County residents go to the polls every four years to renew a special purpose one-cent sales tax (E-SPLOST) to help build and improve school facilities. The tax has been approved in each north Georgia county for more than 20 years, with no fear of rejection.
Walker County's facilities director Chris Jones said, "I think the community members see we're using the money properly, and we're trying to make it the best we can for the students of Walker County."
Saddle Ridge, like other north Georgia schools that have opened during the past twenty years, was fully complete the day it opened. It even has thirty-two personal restrooms to give students privacy. Superintendent, Damon Raines says he’s proud of each Walker County school. "This goes back to before my time here, five years ago," Raines said. "This county, this region really takes pride in school facilities."
The Saddle Ridge campus, with its eye-catching design, would be considered a palace in Hamilton County, yet it was built for only $15 million dollars. Construction estimates in Hamilton County for the proposed new schools range from 35 to 65 million dollars. Commissioner, Tim Boyd says something isn't right.
Boyd said, "What is the difference when they can build this beautiful school, which was designed by a Chattanooga architect, for 15 million three or four years ago, and we can't get a bid under 35 million dollars? Even when you factor in inflation, we should get two schools for that kind of money right now."
Hamilton County Commissioners haven't approved a property tax hike for education since 2005, and most of them say it won't happen this year either. Voters have no option to raise the sales tax at the polls, and there's no guarantee it would pass anyway. The resulting stalemate leaves Hamilton County with decaying schools, and a neighboring state poised to attract parents with school-age children, thanks to educational facilities that shine by comparison.
Testerman said, "We've got to catch up, if we don't, we will be passed over in favor of Georgia. Just look at their schools. If you're a young parent and you can choose where to send your children, you will move to North Georgia."
Hamilton County commissioners say they'll consider funding for new school construction during the next few months, as they approve the 2017-18 budget, although many say it's unlikely that more than one school would be included this year.
Tennessee voters don't have the option of voting on an additional one cent tax for education in their counties. That would require legislative approval, and there is no apparent movement to do so. Also, while many Tennessee citizens ask why lottery funds are not used for school construction, the lottery was established to provide funding for pre-K and college scholarship programs, with no funding for K-12 schools.
In the meantime, our surrounding north Georgia counties report no urgent school construction needs, although Whitfield County is looking at replacing North Whitfield Middle and Valley Point Elementary, using money approved by voters in the March election.
For an explanation of the E-SPLOST in Whitfield County, read below: