published Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Battle for buildings: Parents lobby elected officials for new schools (with video)

CSLA: A Reason to Love Learning
'A building in crisis'
Ganns Middle Valley Elementary School

SCHOOL NEEDS

Here's a look at projects school officials have identified on their latest facility plan. Outside of phases, the projects are not ranked in any priority order. So far, only Phase 1 has been approved by the school board.

PHASE 1

• East Brainerd Elementary replacement*

• Ooltewah Elementary replacement*

• Snowhill Elementary addition and renovation

• Wolftever Elementary addition and renovation

• Nolan Elementary addition

• Sale Creek Middle-High addition or new building

PHASE 2

• CSLA replacement school

• Ganns Middle Valley replacement (would also replace Falling Water)

• Harrison Elementary replacement

• Soddy Middle renovation/addition

• Lakeside Elementary renovation

PHASE 3

• New East Brainerd/East Hamilton middle school

• Replacement for Alpine Crest, DuPont and Rivermont elementaries

• Central high gym replacement and classroom addition

• Signal Mountain Middle-High addition

• Now under design or construction

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education facility plan

  • photo
    Jens Imebner-Mueller, a Volkswagen supplier by trade, sits on the front row with his sign at a Hamilton County school board meeting.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

With their building in a state of disrepair, parents at Ganns Middle Valley Elementary put on a show this month to grab the attention of elected officials.

Students read letters. Parents cried. And teachers pleaded to school and county officials for a new building that could adequately and safely house the school's 580 students.

A day later, parents at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts held their mainstay Celebration of Learning event. But this time parents debuted a video about why their building should be replaced, expanding its award-winning education to more families.

In January, more than 100 CSLA parents petitioned the school board for the long-awaited replacement building. They donned CSLA buttons, sweatshirts and stickers and held posters as they filled the board room.

The school district has long used a priority list to determine which schools receive what work and when. But parents who have waited years are no longer willing to just sit back and wait their turn.

Ganns parents say their school has been deteoriating and crowded for years.

And CSLA's replacement building was the only project never completed from a 1999 facility plan. One CSLA family says they've been promised a new building since their son was in the elementary grades. He's now in college.

Parents say the need to lobby educators and public officials has become more important than ever as a growing list of school maintenance and future facility projects competes for a limited pool of money that hasn't kept pace with the need.

"This is where we've gotten from not being vocal. We keep being passive and passive and passive. Maybe parents need to speak up because nothing else is working," said Ganns Middle Valley parent Janet Nichols.

"It shouldn't be that way. It should be based on need, not who screams the loudest."

With Hamilton County Commission elections coming next year, school projects could get tied up in politics, with commissioners championing construction proposals that fall within their districts. But they're not the only ones eyeing election season. Parent groups say they'll use the pressure of the election when lobbying board members and commissioners.

So far, parents at Ganns and CSLA seem to be making two different pitches.

At Ganns, the school's soggy ceilings, mold and crumbling structure are at the front of the discussion about why students deserve a replacement for their 75-year-old building, which many say is causing health problems like allergy and asthma flare-ups. Parents say the school has two fundamental problems: It's grossly undersized and has deteriorated to an unsafe condition.

At their meeting, they aired a video showing soaked and blackened ceiling tiles, broken sidewalks and a backyard village of dingy portable classrooms used to handle the overflow of students.

"When I saw that video, I said, 'this does not look like a school in America,'" said Nichols, who has a first-grade son at Ganns.

She, along with CSLA parents, think more pressure should be placed on politicians for letting schools get into their current condition. Aside from a $200 million list of future construction projects, school officials estimate $200 million in deferred maintenance costs.

"This hasn't been just one term of political leaders who've dropped the ball," Nichols said. "It's been over and over again."

School board member Greg Martin and County Commissioner Marty Haynes have said they'll push for a Ganns replacement to be done first.

"I think there are needs in many schools in Hamilton County. But I think Ganns Middle Valley has the greatest need," Martin said this month.

CSLA's circa-1949 building has also outlived its use. It's not handicapped-accessible, it sits on a shifting foundation and has leaky windows, among other problems. But parents are centering their lobbying on how a replacement there could open up opportunities across the county, relieve overcrowding at several schools and strengthen what is already an academic powerhouse.

Currently, more than 1,000 families are on the school's waiting list. The facility plan calls for expanding the K-8 school to include the high school grades and hundreds more students.

That would have a domino effect on its sister magnet school, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, where most CSLA students now go for high school. Seats would open at CSAS and at other schools in the Ooltewah, East Hamilton and East Brainerd areas, where most CSLA students come from.

Parents say they're recruiting businesses to help put pressure on political leaders. Industries coming into Chattanooga often cite education as a top consideration. And parent Jessica Thomas says CSLA can play a key role there.

The National Blue Ribbon school has offered specialized science and technological activities for years, and its top academic performance makes it a natural home for international transplants, she said. But the current school just can't house all those who want in.

Thomas says she knows other schools are in just as poor shape as CSLA.

"But it's about so much more. It's about the quality of education," she said.

That's an argument that County Commissioner Tim Boyd is now making.

With many schools in crumbling condition, he said the physical state of the building shouldn't be the only consideration when prioritizing projects.

"Which school effectively has the most impact in relieving student body pressures and expanding schools that have the best academic track record ought to be seriously considered," he said.

Boyd represents the East Ridge area. But he notes that even a relatively small faction of parents -- CSLA currently has about 390 students -- could pose a political threat to any board member or commissioner come election season.

"In an election year, I don't want a group of 10 or 15 parents campaigning against me," Boyd said. "People up for election don't want any small organized group campaigning against them."

But school board members aren't just eyeing CSLA and Ganns.

Additions are considered to be a pressing need at Nolan Elementary and Wolftever Elementary.

School board member Rhonda Thurman has continually raised the need for a replacement or addition at Sale Creek Middle/High. Nearly all middle school students there are housed in portable trailers.

And school board member Donna Horn, who represents the East Brainerd area, said a new middle school for that side of town is at the top of her list. She hears often from CSLA parents. And she attended the event hosted by Ganns parents.

She said both are welcome shows of support.

"I think it's very important for those parents to keep active and let the commissioners and board members know that these are absolutely crucial things we have to face and deal with soon," she said. "But we only have so much money to work with. And someone's not going to be happy.

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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