Both entities agree a new school is badly needed, but there are a number of roadblocks in the way, primarily funding. Both are hopeful a wheel tax proposed by the county can generate funding for both the county and city school systems.
In a luncheon meeting at the school system’s central office Monday, officials of city government and city schools discussed the opportunity to make a firm decision on where a new school will be located
School board members have decided on a 15-acre tract on the east side of North Lee Highway just south of Tasso Road. Councilmen continue to lean on the possibility of using a portion of the 60 acres at the old Cleveland airport (Hardwick Field).
School board member Dr. Murl Dirksen said site selection is not just about location, but also accessibility and visibility for the new school. School officials added they would like the new school to be a centerpiece for the new retail-commercial development planned around the North Lee Highway site.
School board members pointed out the proposed development is expected to have approximately 500 homes (families), which could come close to filling the new school.
At the end of Monday’s luncheon it was decided more dialogue, and information, are needed before an informed decision can be made.
City officials are asking Jonathan Jobe, director of development and engineering services, to prepare a footprint of school possibilities on the old airport property. Both groups also want some hard numbers — on the probable price of the Hardwick Farm property, cost of preliminary work at both sites being considered, and other incidentals.
The school board is expected to provide information on growth enrollment (338 over the past year and a half) and projections for the next few years. They will also project a probable size for a new school.
The Bradley County Commission and Bradley County Board of Education were also drawn into the discussion Monday, although they did not attend. It was decided a joint meeting of the Commission, Council and both school boards should be scheduled (at a time and place to be determined).
It was also decided Monday there should be a Plan B, if passage of the wheel tax fails. The officials want to decide what the next step will be — property tax or an alternate means of raising funds.
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said he will talk with Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis to set up a joint meeting over the next 30 to 45 days.
The agenda for the luncheon had only one item listed — land acquisition for a new elementary school. The debate hammered on issues which have been discussed for some time. There appeared to be little compromise on the tentative sites (Hardwick Farm or airport), although both sides agree the location of a new school should be “pleasant” for city residents.
Key issues concerning the airport location are availability, whether airport hangars on the property would be a detriment, and what the footprint of a school on the site would entail.
At least one school official held Council members accountable ... somewhat. Richard Shaw asked, “If we analyze these issues, are you (the Council) ready to commit (to a site)”? Shaw asked. There was no affirmative (or negative) response from the Council.
The Hardwick site was discussed first. The school board responded to a question from Rowland, saying the 15-acre tract has not yet been appraised, but negotiations have been ongoing.
Dirksen said the board’s choice of the property was determined by multiple issues. “I think accessibility and visibility are important,” Dirksen said. “The infrastructure and roads are already there, and we feel the people of Cleveland would be proud to have a school built there.”
The original tract was 18 acres, but that has been cut to 15. Councilman Dale Hughes said he appreciates this effort, which shows the school board is attempting to cut costs wherever possible.
Former school board chair Peggy Pesterfield said she thinks a new school would fit right in with the proposed residential development of approximately 500 families.
The discussion jumped to the proposed wheel tax, and the need for education funding.
Director of Schools Dr. Martin Ringstaff reminded the group the Bradley County Schools system also has needs. “They need to build a new elementary school (to replace Blue Springs) and they have to do something at Walker Valley,” he said.
Shaw asked city officials who owns the airport property. City Manager Janice Casteel said the property is owned by the city and must the sold. Revenue from the property must then go into the pool for the new Cleveland Jetport in the Tasso community.
“We want to get as good a price as we can for the airport property,” said Rowland.
The group discussed plans for the central office, if the school system’s administrative staff moves to the First Tennessee Bank building on Raider Drive that has been offered to the city.
Asked if the building could be used for expansion of Yates and/or Ross schools located in the same complex, Ringstaff said it would not be a great decision to have three school buildings on the property. Longtime school board member Dawn Robinson said it has been discussed that preschool classes could use the building.
Dirksen said another issue is the size of a new school. “We need to look at what the community wants,” he said. “We could build a larger school for 600 or more.”
He then mentioned that the school board (and city) made some mistakes with construction of Mayfield School. “We built the school on a lot less than 15 acres,” he said, emphasizing that with the extent of growth there is now no way to expand. “We don’t want to do that again.”
Another increase of nearly 200 students (at Mayfield), which happened last year, would be disastrous for the coming year. For this current school yard, Mayfield lost one of two computer labs, its music classroom and a guidance room for required classroom space.
Robinson then asked the “big” question that has lingered throughout these discussions. “Do we have any money where we can look at land?” she asked. “Until we get some money to pay down on property, we can’t do much.”
Councilman David May said, “We need to know about the (probable) cost of the property, estimates on the cost of site preparation and other issues. We need good, hard numbers. We (the city) have the staff to come up with estimates.”
This was when Shaw asked the Council members if they could commit on a site, with such an analysis (of hard numbers).
Councilman Richard Banks asked school board members if they were going to come to the Council to ask for money to build a new school, “regardless of a wheel tax. People who are going to vote on a wheel tax need to know this.”
Pesterfield and Robinson acknowledged school board members plan to work in support of the wheel tax.
“Still, we need a Plan B (in case the wheel tax fails),” added Banks.
Rowland then suggested the two governmental bodies reconvene in the near future (30 to 45 days). Councilman Bill Estes suggested all four groups (including county officials) participate.
“We can prepare (and discuss) all our education needs in regards to the wheel tax or a property tax,” Estes added.
Councilman George Poe emphasized that city officials have a history of supporting education. “I think that if you show people you’re trying to be conservative, it’ll help,” he added.
Robinson, who has served on the school board for 18 years, said officials should talk with people in the community. “People I meet don’t ask me what district I represent,” she said. “They talk to me because they know I’m on the school board (and they have concerns).”
Poe agreed. “They’ll talk to someone they know,” he said.