published Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Huge new Ooltewah Elementary will help, but growth demands even more (with video)

Classroom buildings are beginning to take shape as work continues Tuesday on the new Ooltewah Elementary School, scheduled to open in August 2013 on Green Gap Road.
Classroom buildings are beginning to take shape as work continues Tuesday on the new Ooltewah Elementary School, scheduled to open in August 2013 on Green Gap Road.
Photo by John Rawlston.
New Ooltewah Elementary School on track
Workers are constructing the new Ooltewah Elementary School seven days a week in order for the school to open for the 2013-14 school year. The school, which is the largest elementary school ever built for Hamilton County students, will house more than 1,100 students when it's completed.

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Are schools getting too big?

THE BIG 5

Here's how the new Ooltewah Elementary School will stack up against Hamilton County's largest public schools in terms of enrollment*:

1. East Hamilton Middle/High -- 1,913

2. Ooltewah High -- 1,408

3. Soddy-Daisy High -- 1,343

4. Signal Mountain Middle/High -- 1,308

5. Ooltewah Elementary -- 1,100

* 20th-day enrollment figures Projected

Source: Hamilton County schools

When the $21 million Ooltewah Elementary School opens next fall, it will be the county's largest elementary in both sheer size and capacity.

The school will hold 1,100 students in its 136,000 square feet -- about 50,000 square feet larger than the average elementary.

It is so big that it will include 40 classrooms, four teacher lounges, two gymnasiums and space for 400 cars to drop off and pick up students. The front hallway of the H-shaped school stretches 600 feet -- the length of two football fields.

At full capacity, the elementary school will house more students than every one of the county's middle schools and all but two high schools and two combined middle and high schools.

Yet for all its size, Superintendent Rick Smith expects the school to open near or at capacity.

Ooltewah is on a fast track to open by August to help accommodate rapid population increases on Hamilton County's east side. But growth has been so explosive that Ooltewah and a similarly sized East Brainerd Elementary School -- set to open in 2014 at an estimated cost of $22 million -- may not be enough to keep up.

Gary Waters, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, said the school system has built more schools in the last 10 or 15 years than any other period of his 36-year tenure. Records show more than $170 million has been invested in new schools over the last five years.

But it's still not enough.

"It's kind of like running on a treadmill," Waters said. "You keep building and spending money. But you can't keep up with the needs."

Construction of Ooltewah and East Brainerd will nearly deplete the $50 million the Hamilton County Commission committed for school construction in November 2011.

The school district's facility plan calls for hundreds of millions more in new building needs, including a long-awaited replacement for the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, a new Ganns Middle Valley Elementary, a new middle school in the East Hamilton area and a replacement or addition for Sale Creek Middle-High.

"There's enough need that we could monopolize hundreds of millions of dollars if it were available," Waters said. "You could make a good case for anything on that list."

Every dollar that goes into building new schools is also a dollar that cannot be put toward the more than $200 million needed to fix leaky roofs, replace outdated HVAC systems and make other improvements needed in the county's 80 existing school buildings.

But all that -- new construction as well as repairs -- will have to wait.

New needs

The school board's facility committee, appointed this month, will start meeting to answer the question of what comes next. Several board members have identified their top building priorities, but the body has yet to reach consensus or set a direction.

Even if the board were to decide on a new project, funding probably won't be available until at least spring, said Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry.

The county is generally conservative with how much debt it takes on. To avoid increasing taxes and keep county bond ratings high, officials usually don't issue new bonds until old debt has been retired.

But Henry said the county is committed to building as much and as fast as it can afford.

"We're going to be committed to that," he said. "I just hope we can do it in a prudent manner where we don't have to increase taxes to do it."

Architects are drafting plans now for East Brainerd Elementary School, which will go up on the site of the former David Brainerd School. That building currently houses overflow students from the present East Brainerd Elementary, which has about 700 students enrolled this year.

The new school is projected to house about 1,100 students.

A new $30 million Red Bank Middle School will open this August and hold an estimated 750 students.

Board members have recently pivoted to discussions on Sale Creek Middle-High. While the current plan calls for a $10.5 million addition there, some are now eyeing a new school altogether -- a suggestion that dates back to at least 1999.

The current Sale Creek site is landlocked, has no football field, no sewer line and houses nearly all middle school students in portable trailers behind the high school. A new comprehensive middle-high school could be built on the 120 acres the school system already owns next to North Hamilton County Elementary.

A new $23 million Ganns Middle Valley Elementary is also high on priority lists, as that school will replace the current Ganns and the 100-year-old Falling Water Elementary.

A replacement CSLA is projected to cost $46 million. The new school, built on acreage of the current building, would expand from K-8 to K-12. Though CSLA is a magnet school, officials expect a replacement there to help alleviate overcrowding in other East Brainerd-area neighborhood schools.

The new school is long overdue -- CSLA is the only project from a 1999 school facilities plan that never got implemented.

And the area that will be served by the new Ooltewah and East Brainerd elementary schools could need more space, too.

Population growth and trends

The Ooltewah and East Hamilton areas are two of the fastest-growing in the county. And experts say the Ooltewah area, with its rolling farmland, still has plenty of room for growth.

"That is one of the hottest areas to build, especially Ooltewah-Georgetown Road," said Teresa Grove, executive officer at the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga.

Ooltewah-Georgetown used to be surrounded by mostly green farmland, but now is peppered with current and future home subdivisions.

Developer Jay Bell has already built about 35 homes in subdivisions surrounding the new school site. But he hopes to eventually build 250 to 300 homes on his two developments there. Altogether, his Ooltewah-area developments could soon put up 1,000 new homes, he said.

And much of that growth is intertwined with new schools.

"Schools go hand-in-hand with new homes, young families and growth," Bell said. "It's one of the top considerations that buyers look at."

The first of nearly 300 apartment units has already opened at Integra Hills Luxury Apartments, just off Little Debbie Parkway, which falls in Ooltewah-area school zones. That $19 million, 278-unit development is set to be fully completed by February.

TAKING SHAPE

Just west of Interstate 75's White Oak Mountain overlook, rolling farmland levels out and the thick green pasture makes way for rich red mud and bright white concrete.

Tucked between the interstate and Ooltewah-Georgetown Road, the new Ooltewah Elementary School is quickly taking shape. Though work started just a few months ago on the 33-acre site, the entire concrete pad is nearly poured, walls are climbing and roof trusses will soon top the structure as a couple dozen masons assemble the huge building piece by piece.

Crews work seven days a week from sun-up to sundown when the weather allows to keep on pace with the project. The contractor will forfeit more than half a million dollars if the building isn't ready to open by Aug. 1.

The new school was a key component of a massive rezoning package the school board approved last spring to provide relief to overcrowded schools on the county's east side.

When the new Ooltewah school opens, the present one will close. Officials say the current school is outdated and undersized and that bigger schools are more efficient and economical.

Plans call for the present school's 506 students to attend the new Ooltewah Elementary and for the old building to be sold.

The new Ooltewah school also will take in about 125 students from Birchwood Elementary, which is closing at the end of this academic year. Ooltewah will also help relieve overcrowding at Snow Hill Elementary and Wallace A. Smith Elementary.

With about 830 students this year, Smith is well over the school district's target enrollment of 690 students for that school, zoning documents show. And Snow Hill's 577 students are inching toward that school's capacity of 620.

From 2000 through 2011, building permits for nearly 10,000 residential units were issued for the area within a 10-mile radius of the new Ooltewah Elementary, according to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

And the area will likely see even more home growth in the coming years.

School board Chairman Mike Evatt said new schools that go up in rural or sparsely populated areas often spark quick and dense development.

The school system's growth and current facility needs make it clear that the county won't be done building schools anytime soon, Evatt said.

"If we had the money, we could have school construction going on all over this county," Evatt said. "But the money just isn't there to do it all at once."

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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