In addition to increased funding for our schools, UnifiEd calls for the county and school district to work together to create a long-term plan to address current and future facilities and capital needs. If you agree, we encourage you to take a few moments to contact your county commissioner and tell them so! Visit the Fund Hamilton County’s Future campaign hub here to get your commissioner’s contact info plus templates for letters, emails, and calls on the subject.
Lesley Rice, a Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts parent, wrote this “Community Voice” guest blog with her perspective on why such a long-term plan is vital.
I have been tirelessly advocating for a new building for Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA) over the past few months, and it has become apparent that neither the Hamilton County Department of Education nor the Hamilton County Commission has a strategic plan for how to address the many facility needs in our county’s schools. When UnifiED approached me regarding their current “Fund Hamilton County’s Future” campaign (which includes a call for creating a multi-year strategic plan), I knew the CSLA story needed to be told in this context. CSLA is a very tangible symbol of the failure of Hamilton County to properly resource our schools and to create and fulfill effective long term planning strategies.
Back in March of 2014 WRCB’s School Patrol journalist David Carroll wrote an article titled “CSLA’s sad situation: Who’s to blame?” He writes:
“Back in 1999, I attended a Hamilton County School Board meeting of the Facilities Committee. Dr. Jesse Register was superintendent. Board members included Debra Matthews, Charles Love, Joe Conner, Janice Boydston, Bill Eldridge and Everett Fairchild, among others. All have since retired, resigned, or moved out of town, and in Ms. Matthews’ case, passed away. Their Facilities Committee was made up of community leaders who spent months visiting every single school building in the county. This committee listed each school’s physical condition, wiring infrastructure, student capacity, classroom space and enrollment. From those visits, they created a massive report listing the pros and cons of each building, particularly the ones that needed to be replaced or renovated in the first 5-10 years of the new century. Near the top of the list was the Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts (CSLA). By 2004, so the experts said, it needed to be replaced.”
Wait – so are you telling me there was some sort of 5-10 year plan regarding facility planning created in 1999 and which has absolutely not been followed? Is this because the money wasn’t there? Is this because the politicians who came along in the subsequent years weren’t committed to the vision or the plan? I suspect the answer is a combination of those two things.
Mr. Carroll goes on to tell the story of how CSLA, an award winning school, has been the victim of the local political system. Carroll says, “within that word called ‘politics’ resides smaller words like ‘clout,’ ‘power,’ and ‘turf.’ Ever since that Facilities Committee recommended a new school for CSLA in 1999, our elected leaders have used their clout and power to shore up their own turf.”
There are nine districts in Hamilton County, and the elected leaders in those nine districts tend to favor projects and investments that work to get them re-elected. This is just the nature of the system. But for a school like CSLA – a small, dedicated magnet school with students from all nine districts – there simply isn’t enough power or clout to compel the overwhelming members on the school board or county commission to act on its behalf.
Currently facilities are voted on every 2-3 years by the school board. This means that, rather than following a multi-year approach, the facility needs in Hamilton County are open to political posturing every few years based on the whims of the current batch of politicians.
The parents at CSLA have utilized various strategies to try to work within the existing political system over the years to win over the hearts and minds of politicians. It is a frustrating and exhausting process that seems to start all over with each election.
One of our newly elected school board members told me a few weeks ago that CSLA parents were not being “objective” in our approach for a new building. Perhaps that individual is right. It is difficult to be objective when you see a political system that takes a strategic plan that was created in 1999 and fails to see it through to fruition and that has yet to create a similar plan for a new crop of needs some 18 years later.
While I can’t pretend to be objective when it comes to the very apparent and long-standing needs at one of our county’s flagship schools, I hope I can at least point out that the existing system and the failures of nearly two decades of leadership are not unique to CSLA. CSLA is merely a symptom of a much greater problem countywide.
It is past time for our school board to create a new multi-year strategic capital plan similar to the one that was created in 1999. HCDE must take inventory of the facility needs that exist and prioritize those needs based upon the immediacy of the findings. There was a list presented at a Facility Committee meeting back in February of 2017 that can be expanded upon and further developed.
It is time for the County Commission to ascertain how to fund the plan and to properly resource ALL of our schools so that every student in our county has access to the best education possible in a clean, safe, and modern facility. How will the commissioners generate the necessary revenue to fund such a robust program? How can the state of Tennessee assist in that process? These are the questions with no easy answers – and yet it seems clear that there is simply not enough revenue coming in at the present time to fund the existing needs.
Perhaps most importantly, it is time for the voters of Hamilton County to demand that our leaders act in the best interest of all of our students. It is unlikely that anyone can develop a plan that can withstand the ever-present political turnover. Therefore, voters must be watchful in seeing that well thought out plans are implemented by whoever happens to be in office.
While I hope that our current leaders will take the call to create a plan seriously, I know all too well that the existence of a plan isn’t worth anything if it isn’t implemented. Let us not repeat the follies of the last two decades. We MUST do better, and we must begin now. And it is okay with me if we start by granting Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts that building they were promised 18 years ago.
By Lesley Rice
Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts parent