Knox County Board of Education members are expressing concerns about how nearly $400,000 were spent on a culinary program at Karns High School without the board's knowledge or approval.
The money was used by the Career and Technical Education program under the watch of director Don Lawson. Lawson was placed on unpaid leave in August for unspecified reasons.
"I think it looks very bad that the board is caught unaware," said Lynee Fugate, who represents the 4th District on the Knox County Board of Education. "A large culinary arts program that requires construction, equipment, that kind of thing, typically we know about that. We need to make sure that if things are going to happen they happen in the proper fashion."
Fugate said she found out about the program during the August board meeting once the money had already been spent.
"My question is, who knew about it? Who actually approved it? Where was the money supposed to come from?" said Fugate. "At our board meeting in September we asked the finance director how we were going to pay for it and he said he didn't have the $400,000."
Mike McMillan represents the 8th District on the Board of Education. He also said he was blindsided by the costly program.
"In the past, the process is that it comes before the board and you do not do anything unless you have board approval," McMillan said. "It is ultimately the taxpayers' money and somebody has to be responsible for the oversight."
Terry Hill represents the Karns area, including Karns High School, on the Board of Education. She worries the issue will hurt the culinary program.
"This is not a reflection on Karns High School, but a reflection on the process that clearly broke down," Hill said. "None of us are happy about this, and it's going to be fixed."
Meanwhile, students at Austin East High School have been waiting for funding from the board for upgrades to their culinary program. They have not yet received the money.
"It looks very bad that there is one school that thinks they were getting new equipment that still doesn't have the new equipment and yet a brand new program is starting somewhere," Fugate said.
Knox County Schools responded to our questions with a statement, writing in part "unlike the many capital projects Knox County Schools successfully completes each year, this project did not follow board policy and procedures."
The school system is investigating the issue. Efforts to reach Lawson were unsuccessful.