Groundbreaking to mark end of Greenback School battle

Construction signals end to Greenback stir

By Hugh G. Willett

The groundbreaking for a new school in Greenback on Saturday will mark the construction of the first new school in Loudon County in 27 years, but for those who fought a six-year battle to fund the new building, the event means a lot more.

For Greenback parent and school board member Lisa Russell, it's verification from the people of Loudon County that their children deserve safe and up-to-date educational facilities.

Russell first became involved in the campaign for a new school after she started to question the safety of the current Greenback school. After pouring over records at the fire marshal's office, Russell discovered numerous violations and presented her concerns about safety to the school board and County Commission.

"All in knew is that there was a problem that wasn't getting fixed," she said.

They were problems that former school board member Larry Bass knew only too well. Bass graduated from the same school in 1970, and his mother had attended it in the 1940s.

By 2005, Bass was concerned about safety, but he also knew that the school, of which some parts were nearly 60 years old, was wasting money because of years of neglect.

"We were spending too much on maintenance. They said it would cost more to repair the school than to build a new one," Bass said.

Even after a 2006 Knoxville Public Building Authority study recommended a new school be built rather than repairing the existing building, the Loudon County Commission seemed hesitant to follow through.

With only a single member on County Commission and the school board specifically representing the Greenback community, the project lacked the necessary backing to get pushed through.

"It got hung up between the Budget Committee and the Capital Projects Committee," Bass said.

During 2007, gas leaks and other safety issues at the school were often reported. At the same time, some county commissioners suggested the problems at the school were not as serious as they appeared.

By 2008, Bass said, he was getting frustrated.

"I knew it would eventually have to happen but the politics of it just made me sick," he said.

In September 2008, four new school board members were elected, including Russell. Once on the board, her goal was to keep the Greenback school at the top of the County Commission agenda.

The disconnect between commission and the school board was identified as a major problem. Loudon County Schools Director Wayne Honeycutt was hired in 2008 with to solve the problem.

Joint meetings between the board and the commission seemed to take one step back for every step forward. Over the next two years, Honeycutt was often criticized for being unable to break the stalemate.

"I think he did the best he could," Russell said.

Earlier this year, the school board decided not to renew Honeycutt's contract. Jason Vance, then-assistant schools director, was elected as Honeycutt's successor in a rare unanimous vote.

Changes on County Commission during the 2010 election also seemed to make a difference. Nancy Marcus, a frequent opponent of a new Greenback school, left the panel.

In a crowded and contentious meeting in July, County Commission voted to fund the first of a new school system building program that included a new school for Greenback.

With funding in place, Vance quickly moved to put the plans and bids in place.

With its groundbreaking scheduled for Saturday, the new 145,000-square-foot, K-12 school estimated at $22.5 million could be completed by summer 2013, he said.

"We realize that there are several pitfalls that could happen between now and then, with the weather being a huge factor. However, I hope that we will have students in the new building by August 2013," Vance said.

Vance said he believes the atmosphere of a new building complete with new classrooms, technology, and an auditorium and gymnasium will enhance the learning environment for all students, faculty and staff.

There will also be savings on operating costs because of new appliances as well as modernized heating and cooling technology, he said.

Loudon will also be working on the completion of other parts of the first phase of the building program, including renovating the cafeteria at Philadelphia School and building a new middle school.

The plan also involves building a connection between the current middle school and Loudon Elementary School. The first phase should be complete by summer 2013. The second phase may be able to start shortly thereafter, he said.