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letter to the editor

I attended this past Monday (Feb. 13) an overview meeting of the new high school at Hardin Valley Elementary School, led by Jeff Gaylon of the Public Building Authority with support by the project’s architectural firm and construction company.

It was a low turnout and I do appreciate and thank the three School Board members (Cindy Buttry, Karen Carson and Chuck James) who were present. As a taxpayer, I was surprised that I did not see any other School Board members, the school superintendent, any of the Knox County Commissioners and the Knox County Mayor at the event. I would figure after the controversial “Wheel Tax” and delay of the school (now 2008 rather than the originally stated 2007) that this would be more of a priority to our elected officials (and media).

My first observation is to again thank the three school board members who were present for volunteering, seeking elected office and serving in one of the most complex/difficult positions of public office. In addition, I have concluded after this meeting and events leading up to it that although I have yet to start my family, my future children will not be seeking a public education offered by the Knox County School system. I offer my perspective below.

My professional experience from industry and serving and volunteering for other innovative school systems brings me to the conclusion that there are many RED FLAGS with this project. From my general observations and scrupulous meeting notes, in summary, there was a “lack of confidence” not only from the audience with many aspects of the presentation/discussion (project’s true costs, funding, environmental impacts, safety, school design for academic excellence, and due diligence of the project team) but also from the project team by giving statements such as “we hope” or “we are going to defer those issues to later” or “yes, we meet with those organizations” (but not giving specifics), etc.

The most memorable statement I wrote down was from a School Board member stating: “we asked the architectural firm to provide us with plans for a traditional school” and when the questions were asked of the entire project team about the due diligence (benchmarking, consultation, interviews/focus groups, etc.) in developing the plans, responses were given in generalities and not specifics.

In todays global and competitive environment and the desire of the East Tennessee region to become one day a technological and knowledge-based economy, it surprises me that a “traditional school” would even be considered and any resources (time/money) would even be spent on such an effort.

After reviewing the plans at the meeting, the proposed high school is just like any traditional school project – which is not acceptable. When the questions were asked by myself and an Oak Ridge National Laboratory employee (and parent) about technology and innovation, our questions were answered in generalities with no specifics and left us with the impression that the project team did not understand the “importance” or context of our inquiries and/or did not have the necessary knowledge of other strategic initiatives in local economic development and the demand for a transformation in our education system (see Feb. 13 Time magazine front page article: “Is America Flunking Science?”).

Likewise, the main thesis of Dr. Willard Daggett’s presentation and my discussion with him during the Knox County Education Summit Nov. 8, 2005, was that industry needs to be the critical driver in dictating educational needs for the competitive environment, but that did not seem to be a consideration in reviewing the high school plans. In short, there has been little due diligence to date in the planning to create a modern and innovative high school to meet the needs of tomorrow’s East Tennessee and global workforce. This should be a major concern due to its proximity to the southeast’s only government national laboratory (ORNL), the state’s flagship university (UT-Knoxville), and being in a region that is trying to support innovation.

Unfortunately, we are in an election year here in Knox County and there is plenty of politics and “we do no wrong” mentality among many of the incumbents and public administrators who serve them. The “trust me stories” that have plagued some organizations throughout recent history in government and private organizations such as Enron, etc. always lead to a “lose-lose proposition” for all parties in the end. By following the current project management and political path, the public will not be served and those school board members, elected officials and public administrators will find themselves in “quick sand,” a term used often among innovators for “no-win situations.”

A total transformation in our education system at the national, state, and local level is paramount to our nation’s economy, security, history, and ensuring freedom for future generations. However, for the immediate purpose of the new high school, here are some recommendations for all the stakeholders (elected officials and public administrators) associated with this and future projects:

• Develop the proper requirement definitions, statement of work, and goals for the high school project through conducting the proper due diligence with focus groups, economic developers, industry professionals, subject matter experts, and benchmarking of best practices from other innovative institutions and non-traditional learning environments

• Provide multivariable analysis (realistic forecasts, funding, growth, costs, scalability/flexibility factors, metrics, etc.) when discussing the school project rather than static answers such as the school (that has yet to begin construction) be declared “on budget”

• Measure progress with realistic metrics (return of investment, cost of money, building ratios, student ratios, teacher ratios, missed opportunity costs, etc.)

• Practice proactive management and “out of the box thinking” now to meet the educational needs of this high school and for Knox County for the next 20 years

• Be honest and realistic with expectations and progress rather than being focused on “politics, spin, or personal ambition”

• Meet with industry professionals and citizens who offer assistance rather than dismiss their interests and good will

• Avoid conflicts of interests

Perhaps by the time I have school-aged children, my family may reconsider public education in Knox County. In summary, we as a nation and local community do not have much time in order to meet the challenges that we will be facing within the next few years.

Bill Johns, MBA, MPA

West Knox County


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