published Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Hamilton County school board approves list of building projects, but priority still to be decided

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks during a school board meeting in this file photo.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks during a school board meeting in this file photo.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Board of Education voted to approve a to-do list of six proposed school building projects with an estimated cost of $140 million at its meeting Thursday.

But in order to hash out the priority order for the projects, the board also requested a joint work session of their Facilities Committee and the County Commission’s Education Committee for next Thursday.

The vote passed easily despite disagreements among board members over what projects should be prioritized. Board member David Testerman, District 8, cast the only “no” vote.

The proposed projects include a combined replacement school for two of the county’s oldest elementary schools, Ganns Middle Elementary, 77 years old, and Falling Water Elementary, 102 years old, at a roughly estimated cost of $26 million; a replacement school for the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, which is intended to become a K-12 school, roughly estimated at $45 million; additions to Wolftever Creek and Nolan elementary schools, roughly estimated at $5 million per addition; as well as an addition at Sale Creek Middle-High School, roughly estimated at $20 million; and an expansion of East Hamilton Middle-High School, an area of the county that has the fastest growing population, at a roughly estimated cost of $40 to $45 million, according to Superintendent Rick Smith.

Testerman said he is “vehemently opposed” to the order the projects were listed in, and suggested that CSLA should be at the top of list of the building projects because of the amount of national recognition the school has received since 2005 and its placement at the head of the former projects list.

“We need to do what we have said we would do, and we need to be — I feel — good stewards of the money of this county,” he said. “I am opposed to anything other than CSLA being our No. 1 priority, and Sale Creek being No. 2.”

Board member Rhonda Thurman, District 1, also took issue with the order the projects were listed in, and said it was “a disgrace” that all of the middle school classes at Sale Creek were being held in portables in the parking lot, and that the school had been on the long range facility plans list since 1999 and its overcrowding issues still had not been addressed.

“At least the kids at CSLA have a school, these kids do not,” Thurman said.

Board member Dr. Greg Martin, District 3, told the board that although he understood that all of the board members represent different areas of the county, he was concerned by the attitude of “we versus them” that seemed to be growing among board members, because the “real losers” in that situation would be the taxpayers and the children of Hamilton County.

“At the end of the day, we look at our professionals to give us good recommendations,” Martin said. “I, for one, am going to be supportive of this. And let the County Commission — let them tell us how much money that they’re going to invest in public education. And I hope that they can find it in their hearts to find the money to fund every one of these.”

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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