published Friday, February 28th, 2014

School talks turn quickly to taxes in Hamilton County

Superintendent Rick Smith holds the proposals for updates in area school buildings at a joint meeting with the Hamilton County Commission on Thursday afternoon.
Superintendent Rick Smith holds the proposals for updates in area school buildings at a joint meeting with the Hamilton County Commission on Thursday afternoon.
Photo by Tim Barber.

SCHOOL FACILITY PRIORITY LIST

Here are the proposed projects on the Hamilton County school board's priority list:

An elementary school to replace Ganns Middle Valley Elementary and Falling Water Elementary; a replacement and expansion of Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts; additions to Sale Creek Middle-High and Nolan and Wolftever Creek elementaries; and a new middle school in the East Hamilton area.

They gathered to talk about school facilities — where new schools should be built and when.

But in the first formal gathering of Hamilton County commissioners and school board members in nearly three years, it didn't take long for talks to narrow in on funding and taxes.

Some school officials say it's time to talk about a countywide tax increase to keep up with the school district's immense educational and facility needs. The district has a list of deferred maintenance projects that tops $200 million, and another list lays out $200 million in needed new school construction.

At a joint meeting Thursday, school leaders presented their whittled-down list of the next six school construction projects they'd like to see completed.

"All of us want something new, but we don't have a way of paying for it," said school board member George Ricks. "It's going to have to be a tax increase one day. All of us are going to have to face that one day."

Ricks addressed the crowd of educators, students and parents who packed the school board room to advocate building projects for their respective schools.

"Don't be afraid to ask these people to vote for a tax increase. ... Quit being afraid," he said.

The County Commission funds the school system, and school officials say they haven't seen an increase in operating funding since 2006, though the system has received automatic increases from property tax growth. Of course, new schools can be built without a tax increase. County government routinely issues bonds to pay for new schools. As old debt is paid off, new loans are taken out to fund new schools.

But some school officials said the district's immense financial needs go beyond just building new buildings.

"I hope to live to the day where we have a tax increase in this county," said Superintendent Rick Smith.

"How old are you?" countered Commissioner Warren Mackey.

Mackey, chairman of the Education Committee, has questioned whether new buildings are needed. There is unused space in several urban schools, though enrollment is growing in suburban areas like Ooltewah. Mackey criticized the school system's list of six projects for not including any new building projects in poorer areas like his district.

"I know you're not asking parts of our community to pay taxes and get nothing for it," he said. "I don't see that happening."

School board member Jeffrey Wilson also tapped into the equity issues, citing the discrepancies that exist within the county's 75 schools -- in terms of both facilities and programs.

"It's not morally right that some kids go to school in nice beautiful buildings every day and some kids go to schools where I would be embarrassed to show people," he said.

Commissioners are always cautious about tax increases, but this year all nine are up for re-election.

"Last time I voted for a tax increase, we were vilified and put on a billboard. And nobody came to our assistance," said County Commissioner Greg Beck.

In 2007, a community group organized to protest a 26 cent county tax increase. Some community members -- including school board member Rhonda Thurman -- raised money to place billboards in the district of each of the five commissioners who voted for the increase.

School officials said they understand the political risk of a tax increase.

"I'll be glad to join you on that billboard," the superintendent told Beck.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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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