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Ragsdale forms task force to solve Farragut overcrowding

The future of West Knox County students may now be in the hands of a small group of people, dubbed a task force, who gathered at Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s home last week.

The commission, formed under Ragsdale’s direction is made up of: County Commissioner John Greiss, School Board Representative Chuck James, Dave Hill, the executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission and a handful of parents, one of which is also a high school teacher in West Knox County.

The group’s main task is to study the overcrowding problem facing Farragut High School. Knox County Commission spokesperson Mike Cohen said the task force was formed because, “There was a sense that the solution the School Board proposed was not necessarily the best solution.”

The mission of the group is to first gather hard data that will accurately outline the problem and propose a solution to recommend to the school board.

Cohen said, “We will move with all deliberate speed to make a recommendation as quickly as possible.” But he acknowledged that the outcome of the group’s work hinges on the school board. “Ultimately, it’s their decision.”

Cohen said Ragsdale decided early to include the MPC in the task force. The group will be key in helping study such important details as the best place to build depending on demographics and projected growth, Cohen added.

Knox County Commissioner Craig Leuthold is eager to see what solution the task force proposes. Leuthold represents Farragut, but said a new school would also benefit the Bearden and Karns communities.

“The need for a new high school out west is way overdue,” he said. “We can’t wait ten years.”

This feeling is one reason Leuthold took the opportunity of the newly proposed wheel tax to procure money for a new high school. He asked that the tax be increased an additional $5 in order to raise necessary funds for construction. Leuthold’s proposal did not pass. “There would have been more than enough for a new school,” he said. He also said there would be money left over for other countywide projects.

Leuthold, who has two sons at FHS, is concerned about how the school compares to other Knox County schools in terms of square footage and personnel cost allocated per student. According to Knox County School Board data, FHS falls at the bottom of both lists. Austin-East, for example, ranks No. 1 on square footage per student with 353 square feet. FHS has 92 square feet per student. Bearden and Karns rank directly above FHS, with 140 and 122 square feet respectively. The average among Knox County Schools is 174 square feet.

As for personnel costs allocated per student, Farragut allocates $3,315, more than $1,000 per student below average.

Leuthold does not agree with the school board’s solution spelled out in their five-year plan. The plan allocates $15 million of their budget for improvements to Karns and FHS over the next five years. Karns will receive new classrooms next fall, while FHS’s 26 new classrooms would come in the next four to five years. In addition, $4 million would be used for school improvements that do not include new classrooms.

Leuthold would like the school board to consider putting that $15 million toward a new school and search for the remaining money needed to build as soon as possible.

Leuthold is concerned that the board is running out of options for where to build and thinks the board should at least work to find the funds to buy property for a new school.

“They’ve already lost good locations and the price of land keeps going up,” he said. Leuthold noted how the school board allocated money in last year’s five year plan, but essentially dropped it from their budget since the figure was changed to a “miniscule amount.”

Leuthold is also concerned about the rapid growth Farragut is experiencing and notes the increase in building permits and the current amount of, “raw land ready to be developed.”

As for the recent rezoning to “adjust” for some of this recent growth, Leuthold said, “It is a temporary fix.” Leuthold remembers when the same sort of ” temporary solution” in the mid ’90s. Leuthold said he’d like to know how many students are transferring in while students are being zoned out. “Before we transfer in, we need to stop transferring out,” he said.

Leuthold is concerned that with transfers and families moving into Farragut the school is netting more students than they are rezoning. “Farragut grew by 100 students last year,” he said.

Leuthold noted the growth of elementary and middle schools in West Knoxville. “A.L. Lotts opened at capacity,” he said. “Now there are temporary classrooms there. West Valley opened at almost capacity. All these kids are eventually going to high school.”

Leuthold said he spoke to an architect who was concerned with the “core capacity” of FHS. While classrooms can be added, the size of core building areas like the cafeteria, gym, auditorium, library and hallways cannot be increased without great expense.

Leuthold noted lunchtime at FHS.

Often students sit on the floor or have to wait in such long lines that they have hardly anytime to eat, he said. “That is unacceptable.”

While Leuthold knows many in Farragut are passionate about this issue, he said, “People need to get more involved. There has to be more of an outcry.”

While Leuthold is a proponent of a new school, he is not necessarily against the construction of a new downtown library.

“I don’t see it as either/or, but I do believe a new high school is needed more.”

Leuthold said he also understands that other schools in the county await needed improvements, but believes everyone needs to know the west high school issue is just as important.

“Everyone needs to understand how bad the situation is,” he said.

As for the recent chatter regarding raising taxes in order to help fund a new school, Leuthold said, “It’s Knox County’s job to educate students, but if the people of Farragut wanted to help,

it would go a long way,” he said.


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