Plan for Loudon schools OK'd

School board to send approval for $90 million proposal to commission

Hugh G. Willett
Friday, November 2, 2007

The Loudon County school board approved the first phase of a long-awaited $90 million long-range building plan Thursday night.

The less-than-unanimous agreement on the proposal was still a big win for incoming school board Chairman Bobby Johnson Jr., who had promised to bring an approved building plan to the county commission before the end of the year.

With a few changes, the board adopted the plan developed between Johnson and Superintendent Edward Headlee, reportedly with input from county commission members and County Mayor Doyle Arp.

"Compared to what we were doing for the last year and a half, I'd say tonight was a major step forward," Headlee said.

Still, it was obvious that issues that had divided the board for several years and prevented the approval of badly needed upgrades to the school system were going to have to come down to a vote.

One of the most contentious issues was the proposed location of a new elementary school near Interstate 75.

Some on the board had argued for renovating Fort Loudon Middle School and adding new buildings on the existing property.

School board member Scott Newman quickly raised the issue of segregation of the student body at the proposed location.

If the student body were to be split between the current elementary school and the new school near the interstate, it would be inevitable that the Hispanic population would be isolated in the old school, Newman said.

Parents had expressed concerns about a school near the interstate because Pilot Corp. wants to build a travel center serving commercial trucks nearby. The issue is in litigation between Pilot Corp. and the city of Loudon.

After some discussion, board members agreed to renovate the existing Loudon Elementary School and to build facilities for pre-kindergartners through fifth-graders on the property to keep the elementary student population on the same campus.

The issue of the Greenback school, one of the few K-12 schools in the state of Tennessee, sometimes criticized as being in the worst condition of any in Loudon County, also caused a split.

There has been disagreement on the issue for almost three years since a study recommended tearing down the Greenback school - built in 1939 and remodeled over the years - and building separate elementary and high schools.

There has been past discussion of busing the 200 Greenback high-schoolers to another school. Some board members indicated they did not like the idea of high-schoolers sharing a building with elementary school pupils.

Former board Chairman Bill Marcus said he would not like to see his young children in the same school with high-school children.

Board member Freddie Walker Jr. said he was concerned about demolishing the entire Greenback school when the building was not even paid for yet.

"Loans taken out to upgrade the school in 2000 won't be paid back until 2025," Walker said.

When it came down to approving the Greenback portion of the plan, the vote was 6-4 to rebuild a new K-12 building. The plan passed against the wishes of board members Bill Marcus, June Klinestiver, Fred Walker and Leroy Tate.

The issue of renovating or upgrading existing facilities was debated several times, with Headlee pointing out that bringing old buildings, such as the existing high school, up to modern codes had proven to be more expensive than new construction.

An audience of parents, teachers and school administrators applauded when the board agreed after another 6-4 vote to send the building plan to the county commission for approval.

Johnson said that he wanted to get a basic plan to the county commission so that the commission could begin to work on funding. According to Johnson, the commission is ready to approve $15 million in funding immediately once the board has decided which projects to begin first.

Johnson, who has said his goal is to get the county commission to approve funding before the end of the year, acknowledged that a lot of details and priorities will have to be worked out by the commission.

Among the proposals that have been floated to fund the plan: a sales tax increase of .05 cents, a wheel tax and a property tax increase.