published Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

School politics: A primer in disappointment

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks in this file photo.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks in this file photo.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

Well, voters, the back-room Hamilton County commissioners were too fast for us — unless we rally and let them know exactly what we think this week before they vote Wednesday.

They’ve made good on their plans to meet secretly and one-on-one with Jim “King” Coppinger at the behest of Fred “Boss” Skillern to decide with no public input or debate on what new schools should be built — all with the previously undisclosed amount of our money that County Mayor Coppinger and Commission Chairman Skillern have decided on their own that they will spend.

On Wednesday of last week, the commissioners moved quickly to dispense the result of their political deal-making — which calls for passing over, yet again, the county’s National Blue Ribbon school that has been waiting 25 years for a new building.

The Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts tops the charts for student achievement. But constructing a new and larger $40 million building for a champion magnet school to help two or three times as many students just seems to hold no great commissioner payback. CSLA has no clout because the open-enrollment school belongs to no particular commissioner’s political constituency.

As a magnet school, CSLA has students from all over the county and from each commissioner’s district. But, you must remember, each commissioner is elected solely by voters in his district. With only 382 students at CSLA currently, that would mean, at most, only about 600 votes (counting each parent) to be split among nine commissioners. That means there’s no good political football to be played with CSLA — or any other magnet school.

On the other hand, the proposed new $26 million school to combine tiny Falling Water Elementary and Ganns Valley Elementary in the Middle Valley area will eventually serve 980 students whose parents might offer allegiance to the commissioner from their district — Marty Haynes who represents District 3 and is currently unopposed this year.

A planned $5 million expansion of the still-new Nolan Elementary on Signal Mountain could potentially yield two-each votes of support from parents of a projected 860 youngsters for District 2 commissioner Jim Fields, also currently unopposed.

A $12 million expansion (the third since 1973) to a 1964 middle and high school in Sale Creek will offer potential parental/grandparental votes from a new projected capacity of 650 kids for District 1 commissioner Fred Skillern — who does face opposition in the upcoming May primary election.

A proposed $5 million addition to the 26-year-old Wolftever Elementary will bring that school’s vote capacity to 890 (times 2 or more, of course) for District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston, who faces Democratic opposition in the upcoming General Election.

Aside from CSLA, the only other loser here was the school board’s proposed new East Hamilton Middle School in District 7, served by Commissioner Larry Henry.

But like CLSA, East Hamilton had no bargaining chips — read here no potential votes. Despite the fact that East Hamilton had the lion’s share of students — 1,898, with all their attendant potential voters — Henry isn’t seeking re-election to the commission this year, and the five candidates hoping to succeed him aren’t yet jockeying for all that school support. Henry is, however, seeking election to the post of Circuit Court Clerk. Since that is a countywide post and he faces two opponents in the primary, he wouldn’t want to ruffle feathers anywhere in the county.

Pretty depressing, huh? Here we are, still foolishly clinging to the idea that the logic of need and achievement is what should hold sway in the politics of school construction.

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