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Ragsdale proposes new West Knox high school
Wheel Tax key element to overcrowding issue

The task force asked to study overcrowding in West Knoxville schools made its recommendations public Thursday, July 29 in the auditorium of Farragut High School. The group, led by Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, was made up of a mix of government officials, parents and Dave Hill, executive director of the Knox County Municipal Planning Commission. The committee’s findings drew applause from audience members, but its recommendation will go into effect only if approved by the Knox County Commission and the Knox County Board of Education.

Charlotte Jensen, president of the PTA at Farragut Primary School, Mimi Moran, also a mother with children attending the affected schools, Dana Stansfield, president of the Knox County Education Association, County Commissioner John Griess and Farragut Alderman Dot Lamarche, also sat on the committee.

Chuck James was the only school board member asked to participate on the task force. He represents West Knox County-area schools and has vied for a solution to overcrowding since joining the board two years ago. “In the past, we’ve taken one step forward and two steps back,” he said prior to the presentation of the group’s findings. “Instead of crawling, we’re running now.”

Backed by demographic data compiled by the MPC, Ragsdale proclaimed the need for a new high school to serve students in the West and Northwest areas of Knox County and offered county money to pay for it.

Funds would come from money saved on county projects including $15 million initially slated to ease jail overcrowding, a problem Ragsdale said has been alleviated. Another $15 million pulled from funds earmarked for the new, downtown library, since federal money has been secured to help pay for its construction. Remaining funds would come from money budgeted by the school board to expand FHS and Karns High School. This plan would be in jeopardy if the proposed Wheel Tax is placed on the ballot and overturned by the public in November. “We can’t have things if we can’t pay for them,” Ragsdale stressed.

Ragsdale would not disclose the committee’s discussions about possible locations for a new school, except to say one possible site is on land adjacent to Pellissippi State Community College. The task force took MPC’s findings into consideration when suggesting sites.

The MPC projects Knox County’s population to increase ten percent or by 37,000 residents from 2000 to 2010. Out of the 12 planning sectors, three (Southwest, Northwest and North) make up 85 percent of that growth. According to the numbers, Bearden High School can accommodate enrollment increases over the next seven years. Karns High School enrollment will exceed capacity beginning this school year and continue to worsen and FHS is currently overcrowded and also will continue to worsen. West High School, depending on the growth scenario, may exceed capacity in 2007 and 2013. Most likely, other county high schools would sit under utilized.

About this trend, Hill said, “The term overcrowding is an appropriate term.” Hill concluded with the need to redistribute (rezone) across the entire system (12 schools) in order to accommodate Knox County students over the next ten years. By 2013, however, new development and population growth will result in system-wide overcrowding.

School board member Brian Horneback who attended the presentation is slated to leave his school board seat next month when Karen Carson replaces him on the board. Horneback said, “I hope this is a new day in Knox County when the mayor is willing to step in.”

Carson hopes the board will be able to work with the mayor and county commission to secure a new school that will service her district. She said she ran for the school board seat because she was tired of watching board members bicker. “How could they work with other groups if they can’t work with one another,” she asked.

Another heated issue still fresh in the minds of some of the audience members was the recent rezoning that redistributed about 100 students out of the FHS zone. Don Amburn and his wife, Sandy, are both graduates of FHS who, until they were rezoned, looked forward to sharing their alma mater with their daughters. “This is no slam on Karns,” Don said. “It’s about being sensitive to your children; this uncertainty is frustrating.” Sandy dubbed the experience “traumatic” for their children. The Amburns hope the mayor has a “plan b” should the Wheel Tax be overturned.

Gina Oster was one of the parents who fought for the zoning to Karns High School when her three sons would be impacted. “It was the most logical, I was thrilled,” she said. “When you look at the numbers, you can’t compare the schools.”

One audience member determined to raise the bar at FHS no matter the enrollment is principal Mike Reynolds. “It might look old, but it could look a whole lot better,” he told one audience member. He stressed the importance for the school board to “look at where the problems are and address the needs.” No matter where problems exist,” he said. “They’re all kids, and they all need a good education.”

Norman and Peggy Shaw thought the mayor’s conclusion was the only alternative. “I can’t see them re-drawing all new lines and they can’t put our school on hold,” Norman said.

Carol Pudelek brought her daughter, Kristen, 9, and husband, Randy, to the meeting. Randy was pleased with what he heard. “This was the first time I heard government listening to the people’s message.” He was also impressed with the mayor’s suggestion to speed up construction, using a non-government, turnkey model.

As for the where a new West high school could be built, Ragsdale said the committee’s site suggestions would be handed over to the school board. “Hopefully the board can agree on a piece of property,” James said. “I’m pulling for the Hardin Valley area.”

Griess, who is a former FHS teacher and coach, said, “I’m excited to see elected officials come together,” but questioned the omission of some key players including superintendent Dr. Charles Lindsey. Knox County School Board spokesperson Russ Oaks said Lindsey had a previously planned speaking engagement and that the board hoped to be formally presented with the committee’s findings.

In a prepared statement, Lindsey said, “The school system and the Board of Education have wanted to build a new high school in the West part of the county for several years. We just have not had the resources without stopping or slowing other equally needed projects around the county.”

In his comments, Ragsdale said, “This doesn’t impact any other school improvements throughout the system.”

LaMarche called her participation in the task force an “enlightening experience.” Since the town of Farragut is not in the school business, she said, Lamarche said she didn’t realize “how serious the matter was, how meaningful to parents. Maybe it mushroomed, got to be too much for the school board.” LaMarche asked fellow Board of Mayor and Alderman members for their input before serving on the committee.

Reynolds hopes more people realize the state of affairs at the high school. “I think there’s a huge myth,” he said. “Just because we’re located in Farragut, we still receive the same allocations as everyone else. We have to raise money regardless of what the county does.” He added, “The school has to fight with or without support; we can’t afford to sit around and do nothing.”


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