First phase of Loudon's $43M school building program making progress

By Hugh G. Willett

After a slow start due to bad weather, the $43 million first phase of Loudon County's school building program is now well under way.

Construction work on a new K-12 school at Greenback, a new middle school in Loudon and upgrades to the cafeteria at Philadelphia Elementary School are pretty much on schedule and on budget, said schools director Jason Vance.

"We've waited so long for this. It's really exciting to see everything coming together," Vance said.

At Greenback, where ground breaking took place in November of last year, structural steel is already going up after a delay due to heavy rains last year. Opening of the school, which is estimated to cost $23 million, might be delayed until January 2014 because of the time lost to due to bad weather, Vance said.

"It's hard to tell with the weather. We might still open in August 2013," he said.

After helping to lead a five-year battle to fund the school building program, County Commissioner Bob Franke is keeping a close watch on the construction at Greenback.

Franke said he has a friend with an ultralight airplane who flies over the construction site and takes photos of the progress.

"He sends me the aerial photos. It's great to watch it progress a little more each week," he said.

Construction on the new Fort Loudoun Middle School, which didn't break ground until late last year, also is going well, said school board member Van Shaver.

The middle school project, pegged at about $18 million, has faced a few unexpected hurdles, including protests by the city of Loudon over a stand of trees that had to be removed from an adjacent park to build the entrance to the school. The city has since decided not to protest the removal of the trees.

There were also concerns about shallow bedrock that have turned out to be unfounded, Shaver said. The middle school should be open for the beginning of the 2013 school year, he said.

Children at the Philadelphia Elementary School will be the first to taste the fruits of the building program when they sit down to eat in a new cafeteria during the coming school year. Overcrowding at the cafeteria was forcing children to start eating as early as 10:30 in the morning. The $1.2 million project is going well and should be finished by August, Director Vance said.

No one is sure how much the second phase of the school building program might cost. According to Shaver, the possible scope of the next phase of the plan is still being discussed.

"We have a lot of other issues to look at, including overcrowding at the high school," he said.

Shaver said he is concerned about where the money will come from.

The $43 million first phase of the building program was paid for with a 20-cent property tax increase passed last year. Because the county was able to get a lower interest rate on the loan, about 8 cents has yet to be used. Earlier this week, the county commission voted to move the 8 cents to the county general fund.

Shaver said he was not happy that tax revenue raised in the name of the school building program might end up being used for other purposes.

"When county commission made the decision to raise property taxes they said they did it for the children," he said.