Loudon school plan set for debate

Some say Greenback School should come before other projects

Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

The Loudon County Commission on Monday will consider a controversial motion that could have a big effect on the long-awaited school building plan.

The meeting at the County Annex Building at 6 p.m. is expected to draw a large crowd of parents and residents concerned about the future of the building program.

Commission Chairman Roy Bledsoe said he plans to make a motion that the panel approve up to $20 million to build a new middle school in Loudon and renovate the cafeteria in Philadelphia Elementary School.

Opponents of the proposal point out that Greenback School, which is supposed to have the highest priority in the building program because of safety issues, isn't even a part of Bledsoe's funding proposal.

"Several independent studies have already concluded that Greenback should be the priority because of the life safety issues," said school board member Van Shaver.

It's the job of the commission to fund the building plan but it is the job of the school board to make the decisions about which schools are built and when, Shaver said.

Bledsoe, who is in his 44th year on the commission, said his only motivation is to get the building program moving. He said the proposal offers a way to move forward with the plan without breaking the county budget or forcing a tax increase.

"This is just a recommendation," he said. "I just want to get something started."

A new K-12 school in Greenback might cost more than $20 million. Depending on the economy, the county might be ready to make such an investment in just a few years, Bledsoe said.

In the meantime, the priority should be to move ahead with the parts of the building program the county can afford, he said.

A new middle school in Loudon, at a cost of $12 million, would eliminate overcrowding problems that have put classrooms in trailers. The Philadelphia Elementary cafeteria project is estimated at about $1 million and also is a priority because of overcrowding, he said.

School board member Lisa Russell of Greenback said she is surprised that anyone would consider overcrowding more serious than safety. She is hoping a good turnout of Greenback residents at Monday's meeting will help convince some commissioners to support the school board's plan.

Shaver, who is running for Loudon County mayor in the May 2010 primary, said politics are getting in the way of the building program. There are more votes in Loudon and Philadelphia than in Greenback, he pointed out.

"It's time to put principles ahead of politics," he said.

The County Commission should continue examining interest rates and loan terms to provide the school board with an accurate estimate of the money available, Shaver said.

Preliminary research indicates that the county can borrow enough money to complete all the projects in the first phase of the building plan, including Greenback, without a tax increase, he said