School building program continues to be debated

 Mary E. Hinds News Herald

After several motions and proposed amendments to those motions, the Loudon County Commission opted once again to get more information and postpone making a recommendation on where and when the county school board should begin the building program and how much the county can afford to spend on it.

The Monday evening meeting began with Greenback residents addressing the commission asking, demanding and - in some cases - begging the commission to include a new school at Greenback in the first phase of the building program. 

Greenback Principal Joey Breedlove came first touting the achievements of his school and assuring the commissioners if there was a new building for the school, the sky was the limit on what they could accomplish. 

Greenback resident the Rev. Ron Sabo, who has children in the school, told the commission that while they all claim that education is their top priority, "your actions show differently."

Greenback's school board representative Lisa Russell addressed the commission as "a citizen and a parent." She reminded the commission of the studies commissioned about the school building program in the county including a study by the Public Building Authority which concluded it would be less expensive to build a new school in Greenback than attempt to renovate the building, which has been renovated many times already since the original building was constructed in 1939. 

County resident Richard Truitt commented on the upcoming motion by Commissioner Roy Bledsoe that the commission recommend to the school board they begin the building program by building a new middle school in Loudon to get kids out of trailers at the school and update the cafeteria in Philadelphia. 

These two projects, along with a new school in Greenback and the combination of Fort Loudoun Middle School and Loudon Elementary into one school, make up Phase I of the building program approved by the school board. At an earlier meeting, Bledsoe said the trailers at Loudon schools were in danger of toppling if the winds were too strong. "The wind blows in Greenback too," Truitt said referencing the fact that Greenback School is also home to several trailers. He said all the school board had asked for was a dollar amount to determine how much the county could afford to build. "I'm sad this has been turned into a political football," he said. 

School board member Gary Ubben urged the commission to move forward to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs while the economy is still in a downturn. 

After more than an hour of public comment, Bledsoe made his motion to recommend the school board begin with the new middle school in Loudon and the cafeteria renovations in Philadelphia. He noted the debate on the building program has been going on for years and his only motive in proposing the two projects was "to get something started."  

Greenback Commissioner Bob Franke immediately moved to amend Bledsoe's motion. He noted the county has managed to build a new health department, a new animal shelter, a new senior center, remodeled the justice center and update the mayor's office but has yet to address the needs of county students. 

He also said that in light of a recent gas explosion that destroyed a home in West Knoxville, the frequent gas leaks at Greenback School have him and Greenback parents and teachers worried.  "I wouldn't want to go to a family if something bad happened," he said. 

His amendment was to have the school board move forward with getting construction drawings for all four projects in Phase I of the building program and to give the school board $1.5 million to get those plans. Franke also said if it was necessary to raise property taxes a small amount to fund the building program, he would recommend biting the bullet and doing so. 

Then came more proposed amendments and some confusion about what was being voted upon and what order the votes should take. Finally, Commissioner Don Miller proposed an amendment recommending the school board attempt to get construction drawings and bids for all four Phase I projects to determine "what we can afford to do." 

Eventually, Miller's amendment was rephrased as a motion which passed by a vote of eight to two with Franke and Commissioner Austin Shaver voting against the motion. 

The commission was also scheduled to vote on whether or not to have a joint meeting with the school board but opted to postpone any meeting until the school board voted on whether or not to accept the commission's recommendation to go for construction plans and bids.