Greenback residents discuss 'hold up'

Mary E. Hinds News Herald

The Loudon County School Board's Building and Maintenance Committee's recent meeting turned into a frank discussion of the real issues preventing the system's building program from getting off the ground.

The meeting, which usually attracts few spectators, was attended by several county residents who came to voice their opinions and ask questions. School board members Bobby Johnson, Jr. who chairs the committee, Steve Harrelson and Gary Ubben along with Lisa Russell, were questioned by Dr. Ken Wahl about the hold up in getting a new school in Greenback. 

Wahl described the situation there as "disastrous"  adding he held the school board responsible for allowing a school he described as dangerous to continue to operate. "I don't know how some people go to sleep at night," Wahl told the board members adding that some in Greenback are considering a class action suit to force the county to replace the school in light of recent life safety issues including several gas leaks in recent months. He said he feared that would do more harm than good. 

Johnson took exception to Wahl's assumption that the school board is the hold up. He told Wahl he was "preaching to the choir" about the situation at Greenback School. "The board approved multiple times to get this built. This board approved it but how do you get the commission to pass the money?" Johnson said adding "You can't get the county commission to support Greenback." "They wouldn't even agree to look at interest rates," said Terry Johnson, who works as a substitute teacher at Greenback School. She also said she was dismayed that some county commissioners claim they don't know what the school board wants to build. "Has that not been made clear?" she asked.

Ubben pointed out part of the problem is the upcoming election. He said School Board Chairman Scott Newman's plan to have a combined meeting between the school board and the county commission would be fruitless unless the commission sees there is community support for the building plan. "It has to be community driven at this point," Ubben said. 

The Rev. Ron Sabo, who lives in Greenback and has children in that school, has long been an outspoken advocate of replacing the building - parts of which were built during the Roosevelt Administration."Your authority has been trashed," he told the school board members and added it is "hogwash" that commissioners don't know what the school board wants to build when Phase I of the building program has been discussed many times at meetings and in the local media. "They are failing this county," Sabo said of the county commission. He said the state of the schools effects "the health of the whole county" and that while the county can offer tax breaks the "schools stink" and that would keep people from moving to the county or locating their businesses here.

The school board recently asked the county commission to come up with an amount the county could finance to begin Phase I of the building program - a new school in Greenback, a new middle school in Loudon, the renovation of the cafeteria in Philadelphia and the combining of Loudon Elementary and Fort Loudoun Middle School - but the commission opted to attempt to schedule a joint meeting between the commissioners and the school board to clarify the situation. Phase I of the building plan is estimated to cost approximately $47 million. Thus far the combined meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Director of Loudon County Schools Wayne Honeycutt said he has been speaking with Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp and Honeycutt said he guessed the commission would be willing to finance "not $47 million" but "about half that amount" he said adding that was just "Wayne's opinion." 

Ubben said if the commission agrees to an amount between $25 and $30 million the board would have to decide what to do with the money and choose between the different projects in Phase I. He said three different areas of the county are competing for those dollars."The three areas are in conflict," Ubben said adding, "Something's going to have to be dropped - the new Greenback School or the new middle school, the big projects." 

Wahl said the question of where to spend any available funds should be answered by asking "are the teachers and students physically safe in the Greenback School? Are the others that bad and are they in physical danger every day?" Ubben asked why he felt students at Greenback are in physical danger. "You have to ask that?" Terry Johnson replied. 

Bobby Johnson said he kept hearing the county commission would agree to finance $20 million. "I think that's what is going to happen," he told the group. Terry Johnson said people in Greenback feel any money available would be spent "on this side of the river." 

Ubben pointed out that the county has spent a lot of money on the numerous repairs necessary just to keep the doors of Greenback School open and the fire marshal satisfied including several gas leaks and the air conditioning. "It works against us that we've spent money in Greenback," he said. 

Harrelson agreed that after investing in the patchwork repairs at Greenback, commissioners who seem opposed to a new school there would use that investment as another reason for opposing the project. Johnson agreed saying some commissioners will say the county has put so much money into it it can't be walked away from.

There was some discussion about trimming the Greenback School project to fit the amount the commission approves. Johnson said the committee has looked at the idea of "getting the costs down while not shortchanging Greenback in the process." 

Ubben said that while "we're all in favor of Greenback" the amount of money from the commission would determine what could be done. "Why do they have that authority," Sabo asked adding the commission was only in charge of funding the projects not of how the money is to be spent. 

Bobby Johnson acknowledged that was technically true but "they'll keep their hand on it." Ubben agreed the commission wouldn't give the board $30 million unless they can control it."Their holding up everything by holding up Greenback," Terry Johnson said. 

Ubben said it looks like the commission wants to "direct, influence and control what we can build" and he added when the school board voted on what projects would be in Phase I of the building program no one of the four projects was prioritized as first. "If they give us $20 million they still control what we're gonna do," Bobby Johnson said. 

Ubben also acknowledged what he called the elephant in the room - that the problem is a political one and that "some people just don't want to build a new school in Greenback." 

Bobby Johnson agreed telling the Greenback residents in attendance, "It's not us - if we could fund it you'd already have a school." He added the real problem is some commissioners "don't like Greenback, period." "If kids are killed in Greenback you guys are going to suffer," Wahl warned the school board members. Bobby Johnson, Jr. said he constantly fears something like that. 

Terry Johnson said many in Greenback are starting to feel there is a "vendetta" against them. Ubben said that was not constructive at this point. "We need to look for solutions not complaints," he said adding it wasn't people in Greenback that need to be convinced about the need for a new school there, it's the rest of the county. "Greenback people talking to each other isn't solving the problem," Ubben said.