published Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

VIDEO: East Hamilton parents hear of school zoning plans

Darnell Walker, center, holds his children Julien, left, and Bryceton as they listen to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith talk about plans to rezone area schools during a meeting in the gymnasium of East Hamilton High School on Tuesday night.  Walker says his kids are right on the border of the redistricting, but they might be able to grandfather into their current schools.
Darnell Walker, center, holds his children Julien, left, and Bryceton as they listen to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith talk about plans to rezone area schools during a meeting in the gymnasium of East Hamilton High School on Tuesday night. Walker says his kids are right on the border of the redistricting, but they might be able to grandfather into their current schools.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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  • Hamilton County zoning meeting draws hundreds
    Hundreds of concerned Hamilton County parents, students and administrators packed a gymnasium at East Hamilton Middle/High School on Tuesday for a meeting to announce the new plans for rezoning students in the eastern part of the county.

Hundreds of parents trickled in and out of the East Hamilton Middle/High School gymnasium Tuesday evening to learn whether their children would be rezoned into new schools.

School officials unveiled their rezoning plans, which are aimed at relieving overcrowding at East Hamilton and several nearby elementary schools. After a PowerPoint presentation of the zoning proposal, Superintendent Rick Smith answered questions from parents for more than two hours.

Some parents were relieved to find their homes safely within the zone of their current schools. But many left the meeting upset that their children would have to attend different schools and worried that their property values would sink. A few parents were so dissatisfied with Smith's answers they eventually resorted to yelling.

"I'm irate," said Ryan Ledford, who learned his kindergarten daughter will be rezoned from Westview Elementary.

Because he expects to lose property value, he's not pleased with being moved out of East Hamilton's zone and into Ooltewah schools. But he said he saved up for years and purchased a home last year in the Westview zone, because of its reputation and high test scores. Ledford said he could better understand the change if his daughter were able to finish out at her elementary school.

"Westview is why I bought my home," he said. "For her to be yanked out in the third grade is just ridiculous. Those are the most important developmental years."

Officials expected an emotional crowd, but they noted on Tuesday that the issue is unavoidable. East Hamilton currently has about 2,000 students -- well above its 1,650 capacity. At the same time, other schools like Ooltewah High and Ooltewah Middle are below capacity.

"We have to do something at East Hamilton," Smith said. "We have to."

Elementary schools like East Brainerd and Westview are also overcrowded, though two new elementaries are planned to open on the east side of the county in the coming years. Rezoning plans are proposed to go into effect at different times for different schools, with the proposed new boundaries of East Hamilton being implemented this fall.

Even with the rezoning, Smith said continued growth will put pressure on schools in the area. The original plan was eventually to build a new middle school in the area to make East Hamilton a standalone high school. The middle school, estimated to cost about $50 million, is still planned, but Smith noted it's currently down on the list of future building projects.

"What we're presenting to you tonight is not going to solve the problem at East Hamilton," he said.

The current rezoning plan, which will be brought before the school board, includes a provision to grandfather current students, though parents would have to provide their own transportation. School board members Mike Evatt, of District 9; Linda Mosley, of District 7; and Jeffrey Wilson, of District 5; as well as County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, of District 7, attended the meeting. Officials also plan to host an identical meeting Thursday evening at Ooltewah High School.

While posters of the proposed zoning maps were on display Tuesday, copies of the maps and the proposal were not available by press time.

Many parents from the Belleau Woods subdivision protested the change, noting the likely drop in property values and the distance to travel if their neighborhood was moved to Ooltewah schools. Misty Butler, who lives in the subdivision, said the rezone to Ooltewah will more than double the distance her children will have to travel to school. She's also worried what effect the move to a new school will have on her children when they move away from Westview into new schools, because they'll leave behind most of their current classmates.

"They made friendships that are going to be ripped to shreds," she said.

Connie Chisenall left Tuesday's meeting pleased that her eighth-grade son would be able to stay at East Hamilton. Coming to the meeting, she had no idea whether her Apison home was up for rezoning.

Chisenall said the overcrowding at East Hamilton causes safety concerns and a redraw of zone lines is necessary for the growing area.

"What other solution is there?" she said. "This is the price you pay for living somewhere that's bursting with population."

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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