published Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Rick Smith: Hamilton County schools behind on new building projects

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    Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools Rick Smith listens during a talk with editors of Chattanooga Times Free Press recently.
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The Hamilton County school system is at least a year behind where it should be on new building projects, Superintendent Rick Smith said Wednesday.

Smith and school board members met with members of the Hamilton County Commission's Education Committee to discuss school system issues. The commission doles out the system's budget dollars.

At the meeting, Smith pointed to the school district's outstanding construction needs, primarily on the county's east side, where schools are overcrowded. The system needs to be "very aggressive" in constructing new schools, he said, and he wants to start acquiring land and hiring architects this year for new projects.

Smith has previously said the county needs to replace the undersized Ooltewah Elementary School and build a new elementary on the east side of the county to alleviate crowding at buildings such as East Brainerd Elementary School.

"It's no longer a situation of replacing old buildings," Smith said. "We've got to build new buildings to handle growth."

Leaders agreed that the issue of student growth is a good problem to have. Smith said the school system's current needs wouldn't have existed even five years ago.

"I think we have to realize that this different time is going to demand some real thoughtful planning," he said.

Commissioner Tim Boyd said he's ready to purchase land for school projects, noting that land prices and interest rates are likely to rise.

"We're not going to get it any cheaper," he said.

Mike Evatt, chairman of the school board, noted that the school board had cut millions from recent budgets and reduced the capital maintenance fund last year by $1.5 million.

"We've had no [property] tax increase in five, six years," he said. "And we've cut over $20 million out of operating expenses."

The district also opened several new schools. Smith said new buildings opened in the last five years -- including Signal Mountain Middle/High School and East Hamilton School, another middle-high -- added about $7 million in annual operational costs.

But county residents may not fully understand current school needs or the school district's financial situation, said Education Committee Chairman Warren Mackey.

"Somewhere there's a communication issue," he said.

Given that commissioners will be "very sensitive to every penny" of collected tax dollars, Mackey said the school board might need to work on informing county residents of their needs and issues.

Evatt agreed.

"That's the message we need to get out there," he said.

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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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