A new task force convened by Hamilton County leaders will seek to tackle $1 billion in needed repairs to the county’s school system, and one of its main goals will be to figure out how to fund this work with limited resources.
The seven-member panel, which includes County Mayor Weston Wamp and Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson, will likely begin meeting the first week of October and will meet regularly for several months.
“What I’m hoping for is a fundraising strategy,” one of the members, school board president Tiffanie Robinson, a Chattanooga independent, said in a phone interview Thursday. “We know what the issues are. We already have a playbook built, and I recognize that some people like it and some people don’t like the playbook.
“I’m sure the group will have some ideas…of where and what needs to be built in terms of new schools, but at the end of the day I think the real thing we need to get out of this group is a fundraising strategy to make our billion dollar facilities problem go away.”
In 2018, the school board chose to engage MGT Consulting Group to conduct an audit of the district’s building and facility needs. Robinson said this resulted in a report detailing strategies for resolving deferred system maintenance issues. It also included a focus on what kinds of schools school officials should build next, she said, and where they should prioritize that work based on population growth.
“At this point, we’ve only been able to implement a very small part of this strategy,” Robinson said, which has included funding for a new Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, a new Howard Middle School, a new Tyner Middle/High School and an addition to Snow Hill Elementary School.
Tucker McClendon, the county’s deputy mayor for education and workforce development, recently resigned as chair of the board of education and said in a phone interview Thursday that the county was going through a facilities crisis.
“We saw it with (Tyner Academy), where we literally boarded off part of the building and the students walked out,” he said.
Another facility, the Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts, was in a 100-year-old building that was no longer suitable for students, McClendon said. It’s a district-wide problem.
“It’s in every part of this county that we have buildings that are approaching 50 years old that have not been maintained for decades, and so it’s gotten to the point where it’s becoming a crisis,” McClendon added. . “If we don’t do anything to fix it, it’s going to be bad.”
The panel will work to come up with a proactive approach to resolving the issue, McClendon said. McClendon said the county will have to get creative with solutions, citing, for example, work already underway on a new Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts. Some students are already in the new building.
The project, which McClendon estimated at less than $40 million, will ultimately serve 1,000 K-12 students in a 142,000-square-foot facility at the former Lakeside Elementary School. Crews are remodeling the existing building and expanding it.
“This task force will come up with what they see as solutions,” McClendon said. “The most critical part of this is funding, and I think there are different ways to go about it.”
Newly elected County Commissioner Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd, was also appointed to the council. He wants to find reasonable solutions to the county’s short-term problems and develop a long-term plan that will work for the members of the Hamilton County Commission, the school board and the community.
“I think we’ve done our best so far,” Helton said by phone. “The problem is that we have endless needs and we have limited resources, and we’re just going to have to find a way to make things work.”
Asked by the Chattanooga Times Free Press if the list of options includes a tax increase, Helton said it would be an absolute last resort.
“I don’t even think that option is on the table right now,” Helton said. “That hasn’t been discussed. What we’re going to do is dig deeper and really address needs and wants. I think people often confuse needs and wants, and so as a group, I hope we fix these things: things we absolutely must have, things we would like to have and prioritize them, the last thing I want to do is even bring up the topic of increasing income.
Hamilton County Schools Director of Operations Robert Sharpe said by email that a topic of discussion will be identifying possible sources of funding for facility upgrades. The solutions would ultimately require the approval of the County Commission and Board of Education.
“It would be premature to discuss any potential source of funding until the task force has an opportunity to review needs and discuss pathways to address the facility challenges facing our school district” , Sharpe said, responding to a question about whether a tax increase was possible.
Sharpe said the group will begin by reviewing the facilities study conducted by MGT Consulting Group.
“One of the highest priorities on that list was Tyner Academy, which is currently in the running with a groundbreaking project later this year,” Sharpe said. “The other projects listed in this study as having the highest priority will likely form the starting point for discussions on the priorities of the working group.”
Kenny Smith is a former chair of the Hamilton County School Board and served on the panel from 2006 to 2010. He is another member of the new task force.
“I think there was still a level of urgency, and some of these buildings still haven’t been addressed,” he said over the phone, recalling conversations about the building’s maintenance needs. school during his tenure on the board. “We talked at the time about consolidating some schools, including some with lesser populations, and making better use of our buildings.”
“It has always been a problem and a necessity,” he added. “(We) just haven’t been able to do that. It’s expensive, but that’s the cost of maintaining the buildings.”
During this time, Smith also served as training director for Chattanooga’s electrical apprenticeship program and was a longtime advocate for a career and a technical high school. Kirkman Technical High School closed in 1991.
“I hope to see us get started quickly,” he said of the task force. “We have schools that are in terrible shape and technologically backward. It’s just something that’s been needed for a while, and Mayor Wamp is passionate about it. He’s passionate about updating level of those schools and he’s passionate about having a career and high school college path together.”
The seven members of the Facilities Working Group are:
• Weston Wamp, Hamilton County Mayor
• Justin Robertson, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent
• Tiffanie Robinson, sSchool Board President, Local Entrepreneur and Founder of Second Story Real Estate Management
• Lee Helton, Hamilton County Commissioner, owner of Lee Helton Construction
• Kenny Smith, former school board president, retired principal of the Chattanooga Electrical Apprenticeship
• Kyle Bryant, CPA, managing partner of accounting firm Market Street Partners
• Jay Price, Chattanooga State men’s basketball coach, alumnus of Brainerd High School
Journalist Carmen Nesbitt contributed to this story.
Contact David Floyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.