published Thursday, October 20th, 2011

New Ooltewah Elementary School funds tied to old facility sale

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    The current Ooltewah Elementary School is located near interstate 75 in Ooltewah, Tenn.

The Hamilton County Commission agreed Wednesday to purchase property for a new Ooltewah Elementary School -- but only if the county can keep revenues from the sale of the current school building.

Commissioners voted 8-0 to spend $875,000 on 33.97 acres off Ooltewah-Georgetown Road. The property, located on Green Gap Road, could eventually house 1,000 students as a replacement school for the currently undersized Ooltewah Elementary.

But an amendment requested by Commissioner Joe Graham requires the Board of Education to agree to turn over the money when it sells the current Ooltewah school, which is located in a commercial area at 9232 Lee Highway. Estimates put the value of the current school property at about $1 million.

"I want to make sure that this body gets to approve how this money gets spent in the future," Graham said. "If my parents decided to buy me a new house, I don't think they'd let me keep the old one, too."

Graham's amendment passed 7-1 with Commissioner Chester Bankston, a former school board member, casting the only dissenting vote. Commissioner Tim Boyd was absent from the meeting.

While the county would keep control of the money, Graham said funds from the sale would go toward school capital projects.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said the school board now must consider the issue. The current Ooltewah property is owned by the school district, meaning the board would have to voluntarily turn over revenues from its sale.

If the school board doesn't agree to the amendment, the issue will go back before the commission, Taylor said.

School board Chairman Mike Evatt said he was disappointed with the amendment. He said 11 school buildings are titled to the county government or jointly to the county and the school system. The rest of the county's school buildings, including Ooltewah's, are owned by the school system.

"Historically, we've always used the money for sales like that to go back into capital improvements," he said. "Why have money change hands if they're going to give it back to us when we need it?"

Evatt said the school board has yet to discuss the issue, but he'll bring it up at a board meeting next Thursday. In the meantime, he said he hopes to discuss the issue with county commissioners.

Graham said he thought the new property was "way, way too expensive." But he said he supported the measure because the profit from the sale of the current building would more than cover the cost.

"I can support it because the property we're going to be selling will be worth a great deal of money," he said.

County officials have contracted with a developer who plans to buy the land from several property owners, then sell the 33-acre portion to the county, Taylor said. But all of that is dependent on the county signing the sale contract, Taylor said.

The contract with the developer states that the new school must be completed within 36 months of closing on the property, he said.

During discussions Wednesday, some commissioners expressed dismay that they have yet to see a plan for future building projects from the school board. Instead of bringing each issue to the county one at a time, Commissioner Warren Mackey said he'd prefer to learn the school district's long-term plan for building needs.

"I plan to vote for this purchase, however, I do so reluctantly," he said. "I want to know what the big plan is going forward."

Gary Waters, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services at the school district, said the school board will consider administrative recommendations for a comprehensive facilities plan next week. If approved, that plan would then be sent on to the commission.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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