Hamilton County School board member Rick Smith talks about zoning issues to accommodate students in the east part of the county. "East Hamilton is already overcrowded," Smith said. Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Hamilton County school board members grappled Tuesday with growing pains as more families move into the county but find less space in some schools to accommodate their children.
Overriding all those concerns at a meeting of the board’s Facilities Committee was a question about the bottom line: How much will it cost to build schools and how will the county pay for them?
The current plan involves closing 11 schools, building six schools and building additions to four. Mike Evatt, chairman of the Facilities Committee, said he hopes that committee members would identify the top four items on the facilities list presented at Tuesday’s meeting as a priority, which he said would cost an estimated $50 million.
Those projects are:
* Building an elementary school south of Apison Pike and west of Ooltewah-Ringgold Road to replace the existing East Brainerd Elementary School.
* Building an elementary school north of Ooltewah-Georgetown Road and west of Interstate 75 to replace Ooltewah Elementary School.
* Adding a multipurpose room and kindergarten rooms to Wolftever Creek Elementary School.
* Building an addition to Snow Hill Elementary School.
The entire facilities plan involves multiple closings and consolidations. Alpine Crest, DuPont and Rivermont Elementary schools would be combined into a new school and Harrison Elementary and Hillcrest Elementary would be consolidated, according to Assistant Superintendent of Auxiliary Services Gary Waters.
Facilities Committee members did not make any recommendations about what the top priorities would be. Evatt said the whole plan would go before the full board at its agenda session on April 14.
But how the county will pay for these plans is still a question.
County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said a tax increase is not an option. The commission approves the school board’s budget.
“It would have to come from bonds retired and debt service being paid down,” Henry said.
The county will start retiring some of its bond debt in 2013, which would free up money for new projects, he said. The commission has talked about paying for at least one project — purchasing the site of the former David Brainerd School, a private school that closed on Igou Gap Road — with commercial paper, a short-term debt that would later be converted into long-term debt.
As of June 30, 2010, the county’s total debt was $258 million, and $125.7 million of that was for schools, according to county budget figures.
Rick Smith, deputy superintendent of administrative services, also told board members about two pressing zoning concerns.
Next month, board members will consider rezoning that would send new students who would attend East Side Elementary to Orchard Knob Elementary. Smith said the overcrowding at East Side is in part because of an increase in Hispanic students.
Emily Baker, East Side Elementary principal, said 56 percent of the school’s population is now Hispanic.
Smith said East Side, with a student capacity of 604, is projected to be over capacity by 39 students next year. Orchard Knob Elementary is projected to have 370 students and has a capacity of 600.
In order for students to attend Orchard Knob instead of East Side, Smith said the school board would consider moving the school zone six blocks south from McCallie Avenue to Bennett Avenue.
Smith predicted parents would not object to moving students to Orchard Knob, which is a newer school.
“We’ll make sure we fully prepare the community for this,” he told board members.
Smith also said the school system must come up with a plan to deal with overcrowding at East Hamilton School, a middle-high school. East Hamilton has a 1,650-student capacity and is projecting an enrollment of 2,060 for the next school year. One proposal would be rezoning new students to Ooltewah High and Ooltewah Middle schools, he said.
Smith and Henry said that, in both the East Side and East Hamilton situations, students currently attending the school would not be forced to attend a new school.
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...