What’s in the plan?
The biggest elements include:
› New school buildings for Harrison Elementary and East Hamilton Middle ($29 million and $40 million to $45 million, respectively, both coming online in August 2020)
› Combining Tyner Middle with Tyner High and renovating the middle school for CSLA ($27 million to $28 million, with Tyner merger ready by August 2020 and CSLA renovation/move after that)
› A renovated Howard Middle School ($3 million; August 2019) and a new stadium and track for Howard High ($5 million)
› Additions and renovations at CCA, Lookout Valley, Normal Park and Snow Hill (total cost undetermined)
› Improved athletic facilities at Brainerd, Central, Hixson and Soddy-Daisy high schools ($5 million)
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education, Dr. Bryan Johnson
There were congratulations all around — as well as a couple of shots taken — when county schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson formally presented a $100 million-plus schools plan to Hamilton County commissioners Wednesday.
This was commissioners’ first official look at the plan adopted Oct. 19 by the Hamilton County Board of Education. They will vote Wednesday whether to accept it, but from the praise and appreciative comments that showered Johnson, the school board, fellow commissioners and Mayor Jim Coppinger, passage seemed assured.
Opening the discussion at the commission agenda session, Johnson said, “Since we’ve been here, we’ve shared that there’s two words that will permeate everything that we do: There will be a focus on excellence across the system, and we’ll do things with urgency, because we understand that the things that we do will have an impact on children.”
He said the plan will address needs in several fast-growing districts, make a big dent in a giant backlog of deferred maintenance needs and use district resources wisely by renovating and reusing some buildings.
It mostly will be funded by a property tax hike commissioners approved in September, the first such increase in a decade. Commissioners voted not to adopt the state-certified tax rate calculated after the most recent reappraisal but to keep the existing rate — essentially a tax increase of 26.4 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Seventh District Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, who as education committee chairman met with the school board and superintendent on schools needs, praised the cooperation and Johnson’s leadership.
“I thought it was very important that we all come together to come up with a proactive plan rather than a reactive plan, and I think that that’s what this is,” Smedley said.
“This is something that needed to happen a long time ago and it’s finally happening,” said 9th District Commissioner Chester Bankston.
Commissioner Tim Boyd said “80 percent” of the school board plan matched a proposal he made in March to address $55 million in school needs without a tax increase.
“I think the plan is solid, and there’s no doubt we need it,” Boyd said.
But that drew shots from Commissioner Joe Graham and Mayor Jim Coppinger, who pointed out that only eight of the nine commissioners voted for the tax increase. Boyd voted no.
“This was a very difficult decision for the commissioners to move the millage rate [ahead of] an election year,” Graham said. “So I applaud my fellow commissioners that voted for this, and those of you that stuck your neck out and said, ‘We’re going to do this.'”
Coppinger said that “to raise your hand and vote for” a tax increase is tough.
“I just want to say that [this] lady and gentlemen that did that are to be applauded. … They are the people that put themselves out there for this and I am extremely grateful for that.”
Coppinger also refuted accusations the plan lacked public input.
It wasn’t on the school board’s Oct. 19 agenda when board members brought it up and voted to approve it with no discussion. Earlier, Johnson had said there was no solid version of the plan, though one school board member told the Times Free Press he briefed members individually with a presentation. The board members also saw a detailed PowerPoint presentation at the Oct. 19 meeting before they voted.
After that vote, some parents and community members complained the only public input came after the plan was formed and they felt excluded from the process.
ArDetra Davis said in October she thinks the plan would have gone over much better had the district engaged the schools and the families, even before the planning process, rather than all of a sudden presenting a finished plan.
“I think it would have been a lot better because we had been working together all along,” she said.
Coppinger had Johnson describe the nine public meetings, 2,500 survey responses and uncounted visits to civic groups the superintendent said took place as the plan was developed.
“Sometimes … things are said or written to the public that gives the impression that this just came up one day,” Coppinger said. “Well, the reality is we put that working group together back last October, and we’ve been talking to the commission about different ways to fund these things since about February, March and April, so there’s a lot of input that came from a lot of different people and we’re not really seeing that talked about much publicly.”
The $100 million for schools is part of an overall $225 million increase that also will pay for new jail space at Silverdale Correctional Facility and a new sewage treatment plant in the growing northeast corner of Hamilton County. The schools also will pay the debt service on an additional $10 million bond the county expects to sell in the spring and use money from the fund balance for the projects.