Phase One: Philadelphia's cafeteria

Greg Wilkerson News Herald


Phase One of the Loudon County Schools building program is estimated to cost more than $40 million, which isn't available currently and has been one of the main obstacles in getting construction started.

That figure is derived by adding up the costs of three individual projects, a new school in Greenback, which is expected to cost about $29 million, a new middle school in Loudon at a cost of about $17 million and the smallest of the three, a new cafeteria in Philadelphia, which is expected to cost about $1.5 million.

The issue in Philadelphia is space. The pre-k through grade-8 school has 665 students with the first class going into lunch at 10:40 and the final class ending their meal at 1:05. Principal Maria Warren said they can only get two grades in at a time and have to schedule the meals to get everyone fed.

"They need to pull that out of Phase One," said School Board Member Leroy Tate, who represents the Philadelphia community. "Why don't we go ahead and take care of that problem. It's punishing the kids to have to go through that."

If the school board and county commission came together and decided to go ahead with Philadelphia's project, Tate said it could be done with existing funds. "You're looking at a million out of that ($40 million total) to eliminate a problem," he said.

Pulling Philadelphia out of Phase One has been mentioned several times, but Tate said there hasn't been enough support on the board to get it accomplished. "I think we're just putting some personal interests ahead of 5,000 kids (in the system)," he said.

Separating Philadelphia out is not an option supported by some members of the board, including Board Member Gary Ubben who said though it is a small part of the entire phase, it needs to remain together for the good of the whole project.

"I think when we start breaking one piece out then there's going to be incentive to try and break the other pieces out and I think the two that are probably critical are the Fort Loudon Middle School and the Greenback project," Ubben said. "If we split out Philadelphia there's going to be pressure to split one of those out also, given limited funds, and then break up the package - a small piece first and then a larger to follow - and I think if we do that there's a strong likelihood that Greenback will not be built. I would like to see Greenback built and one way to do that is to keep the entire package together."

The lower cost does not automatically move it to the front of some board members' priority lists.

"A small cafeteria, overcrowded, eating early, that's certainly an inconvenience but it doesn't rank to the level of safety issues we have in Greenback or the overcrowding issues we have in Loudon," said Board Member Van Shaver. "For me certainly number one is Greenback, number two is Loudon and the Philadelphia cafeteria is needed and if the funding is available certainly we ought to try and accommodate that."

While politicians debate how to proceed with the building program, students at schools across the system continue to get educated in facilities that many on the school board have agreed are inadequate.

The oldest part of Philadelphia's cafeteria was built in 1950, and renovations have been made through the years, including a small expansion in 1990 when a stage was added to the eating area. Tate said the stage shouldn't have been built and the space would have been better used as an additional seating area for students. "It's just a mistake and we've learned from it," he said.

The kitchen is also small and full of aged equipment which needs to be replaced, said Alison Millsaps, the county's food and health services supervisor. She said there are needs in every school's kitchen in the system, but they are particularly pressing in Philadelphia.

"In terms of the kitchen facility itself, from my perspective it is the worst kitchen facility that we have," she said.

Warren, who began her role  as principal this school year, said the kitchen is an issue, but the main problem is a lack of space in the cafeteria. Both issues and new equipment are included in the Phase One proposal.

Assistant Principal Kevin Gentry said the second grade teachers have chosen to stay out of the cafeteria and have their students eat lunch in their classrooms.  "We're just anxious to have it taken care of," he said.

Gentry has been at the school for several years and said he expected the new cafeteria to be completed before now. "Within the next year or so, I just don't see it happening," Tate said. "It's going to take some dollars to do it - to float that kind of loan."

Some members of the county commission have said they are considering raising taxes next year to fund the building program, though nothing is certain. 

With the current state of the economy, Tate said he did not believe the commissioners will pass an adequate tax increase to get Phase One started, and he doesn't think the members of the school board will break Philadelphia out to get it completed with existing funds. "They could do that right now," he said.

Ubben agreed Philadelphia could be paid for if the board and commission elected to do so. "We can pay cash for that one. There's enough money in the bank," Ubben said. "I think it might hurt the overall package if we were to do that."