Greenback Fire Chief Tipped Off Inspectors

Deteriorating Greenback School placed on fire watch by state
Gerhard Schneibel

Daily Times Correspondent   
Published: December 1, 2007
Greenback School has been deteriorating for years, with the latest indicator of the building's physical decay being a fire watch imposed by the state Fire Marshal's Office. Six firefighters are patrolling the school daily during the watch, which resulted from findings that include an incomplete fire alarm system and leftover piles of coal in the building's old boiler room.

Parents have also complained of a mold-infestation and inadequate heating and cooling systems, however some say they would not consider sending their children to another school. The building is unlikely to be condemned despite its condition, said Mark Boyd, East Regional Supervisor of the Tennessee Fire Marshal's Office.

Julie Anderson and her husband, of Greenback, chose their house in Loudon County's 3rd District specifically because they wanted their children to attend Greenback School, which has the unusual distinction of serving kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Small communities are not really out there anymore, and that is definitely positive. When you have seniors in high school that are reading to kindergartners, you just don't see that anymore, and they do that," Anderson said.

"I know my kids are getting a quality education, but there is a point where the quality is limited if the buildings are outdated or need to be upgraded," she added.

Greenback Fire Chief Ronnie Lett tipped off an inspector to the fire hazards before a routine annual inspection, Boyd said, adding that last year, an inspector failed to identify the extent of hazards because he was unfamiliar with the school and allowed a school employee to show him what he believed was the entire school.

"Upon speaking with (Chief Lett) this year, he said, 'Yeah you've missed some things. Let me take you and show you," Boyd said.

The fire watch will continue at least until a complete fire alarm system has been installed, Boyd said.

The Loudoun County Board of Education was given 30 days to present a plan of corrective action to the state Fire Marshal's Office.

"It's going to take a little time, the building didn't get this way overnight, you know. It'll take a little time and we're going to work with them to try to rectify the situation," Boyd said.

"We had our supervisor out there (Thursday) from Nashville looking at it, and he kind of agrees with us that, yeah, we're on the right track, let's work with it. Basically what we want is a safer environment for the children," he added.

Lett said the Lenoir City Fire Department is assisting the Greenback Volunteer Fire Department with some manpower, and the fire watch does not present a significant burden to either department.

"We're doing our best not to upset classes and everything. We're just keeping and eye on everything and making sure everything at the school is safe," he said.

Plans for new school

The Loudon County Board of Education has already voted to build a replacement for Greenback School. However, a concrete plan of action has yet to be presented to the County Commission.

One reason for this delay is a series of systemwide troubles including overcrowding and dilapidated buildings. As a result, the school board has adopted a plan to renovate Loudon High School and replace North and Fort Loudon Middle Schools as well as Greenback School.

Replacing Greenback School alone will cost about $25 million, and currently the County Commission can only make $15 million available, said Loudon County school board Chairman Bobby Johnson Jr.

In order to make any progress, the school board must prioritize its building projects, Johnson said, adding that the proposed $4.8 million dollar renovation to Loudon High School will likely be conducted before Greenback School is replaced.

"We've inherited this. What we've got to do is fix it," he said.

The possibility exists that an initial phase of plan will be included in Loudon County's next budget year, but in order to sustain it, additional taxation will need to be introduced to avoid overburdening revenue generated by property taxes, Johnson said.

"There's not anybody that wants to raise any taxes, but we're so far behind, it's awful. And it's awful for our kids," he said.

No great surprise

School board member Larry Bass, whose district includes Greenback School, said he has received very little reaction from parents and praised the efforts of school's faculty and staff.

"As a matter of fact, they're very aware that I am aware. We all know what the situation is. There's been nothing that's been a great surprise to us," he said. "(Greenback School) is just the hub of the community. Of course when anything negative like this comes out, it becomes a very emotional issue. We have got to recognize problems, identify them, fix them and move on," he added.

Ron Sabo, of Greenback, said his children are happy at Greenback School because of the faculty and staff, but that he was frustrated with the conditions of the school.

"These are life-safety issues. That's what bothers me, that they're life-safety issues, and they need to be taken very seriously," he said.

"As a parent, it's frustrating. You ask what the parents do, there's really not much we can do. It's kind of a hopeless feeling."

Daryl Sullivan/The Daily Times