10Investigates: Knox County Schools construction priorities
Author: Marc Sallinger
Published: 7:11 PM EST February 16, 2018
LOCAL 5 Articles

Knox County Schools is facing challenges from overcrowded classrooms to old schools in need of repair. When there are so many needs for new or improved schools, how does the district decide which are most important?

Through more than a dozen interviews and with the help of parents, teachers and community members, 10News examined the school district’s capital improvement plan to see if the spots most in need of construction are really being addressed.

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10Investigates: Knox County Schools construction priorities

LOCAL
Chapter 1

How does the district decide where to spend the money?

Knox County Schools has an annual budget of $470 million.

Knox County Schools is the third largest school district in the state with an annual budget of more than $470 million. Everyday, more than 60,000 students walk into a classroom at one of Knox County's 89 public schools.

This fiscal year, the district will invest $10 million on 10 projects at schools around the county. That includes everything from physical plant upgrades and construction for roof repairs to additions and renovations at four area schools.

"When you’re talking about capital, you rarely have enough. You have to make choices," said Russ Oaks, chief operating officer of Knox County Schools. "We have to work out ways to address our needs and our problems and be creative in how to solve those problems with the resources that we have available to us."

This year, the district has enough money to fund 10 projects around the county.

$1 million will be put towards a $6.5 million addition and renovation project at Inskip Elementary. The construction is set to break ground soon and will increase the school capacity by 700 students.

A portable classroom sits at Inskip Elementary School.

Another $2 million will be spent on construction at the new Hardin Valley Middle School, and $1.5 million will be spent on construction for the new Gibbs Middle School.

Also on the capital improvement budget for FY18 are $1.75 million in physical plant upgrades, $1.6 million for roof and HVAC upgrades and $1 million for technology upgrades.

"The funding that we’ve got, I’ll say, what we’re working under over the next two or three years is significantly constrained," Oaks said. "We invest where the need is. When we have built new facilities, it has been largely because that is where the growth is."

The board of education and the school district came to an agreement with the county mayor several years ago limiting the amount of money allocated to schools through the end of Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett’s term. It is up to the board of education to approve where the available money goes.

Board members say it is based on need.

"I think we’re making due with what we have," said Tony Norman, a member of the Knox County Board of Education representing the Third District. "Building projects are determined by growth. That’s a good approach, I think."

The district said they are doing the best they can with the money that they have.

Parents at some schools who have been bumped off the capital improvement budget in recent years wonder why they have yet to see the same construction other schools have seen.

"The community has grown and we have outgrown that building. There is not a space that is not being used in that school," said Regina Turner, whose kids attended Adrian Burnett Elementary School. "The building is literally sticks and wood. And our kids deserve better. They deserve a building that they’ve been promised for over 40 years."

The Adrian Burnett Elementary School addition or renovation project is on the district's capital improvement plan, but does not have any funding. That means there is no clear timeline of when it will be completed.

"We always do the best we can with what we have," Oaks said. "We can use additional resources … we could always use additional resources."

Chapter 2

Overcrowding at Schools

More than half of all the elementary schools around Knox County have at least one portable building.

Every day, thousands of students attend class in one of more than 240 portable classrooms around Knox County.

128 portable buildings house 243 temporary classrooms. More than half of all the elementary schools in Knox County have at least one portable building, and all but three high schools have them.

"They should be a temporary solution, but as we’ve seen, they kind of came and just stayed," said Lauren Hopson, a teacher at Halls Elementary School and founder of Students Parents Educators Across Knox County, or SPEAK. "It gives funding bodies an excuse to not fund the schools the way they need to. If we have portables, they’re not having to make decisions about adding on to schools in an appropriate way or building new schools."

As of November of 2017, four elementary schools in Knox County had more students enrolled than the building had room for.

If not for portable classrooms, 11 more elementary schools would be over capacity, according to documents obtained by 10 News.

"You have to make choices every year about what you can do, what is absolutely necessary, and what is a luxury and how you can get the most bang for your buck," said Russ Oaks, chief operating officer for Knox County Schools. "At some point when you keep putting portables against a growth project, you’ve got to start looking at other ways to solve that problem."

Since 2006, enrollment at Knox County Schools has grown from 52,915 to 60,356.

At Karns Elementary, enrollment is expected to increase by 5.4% over the next five years. At Hardin Valley Elementary, it’s expected to go up by 8.7%, and could lead to more stress on school capacity.

"Pretty much all of the North Knoxville area is overcrowded for elementary schools. We have a lot more students than we have space right now," said Jennifer Owen, Knox County Board of Education member representing the Second District. "We end up taking a temporary fix and making it last long term and they shouldn't be long term."

The school district calls portable classrooms an "imperfect solution" for an ongoing problem.

Portable classrooms are far cheaper and quicker to install than constructing permanent additions to buildings.

"It’s supposed to be a temporary fix, but some of our schools have had portable classrooms for a really long time," Owen said. "Our funding is not adequate to meet the needs as we have increased enrollment, as we have more students, as students move from area to area."

Portable classrooms also pose challenges and concerns for both students and teachers.

"One of the big challenges is safety challenges because you have students leaving and entering the building every day," Hopson said.

At Powell High School, the need for more space is in the cafeteria. A $3 million cafeteria upgrade is set to be funded next year.

In the same memo, former Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas told Board of Education members, "The undersized cafeteria has caused challenges with scheduling that impact the instructional life of the school."

BOE Chair Bounds agrees.

"The cafeteria I believe seats 300 and they are up to 1,400 students now," Bounds said. "That greatly impacts the scheduling for high school students and also the educational classes, all the instruction revolves around the cafeteria schedule."

Chapter 3

What are the spots most in need of repairs and construction?

Are they being addressed by the district?

The kitchen at Powell Middle School spills out beyond its walls.

"They’re in such tight quarters and dealing with hot pans and hot liquids and things like that. I feel like it is a safety issue," said Knox County Board of Education Chair Patti Bounds. "Their freezer is out on the porch out back and there is equipment that they are missing because of the limited space that they are in."

In a memo to the Knox County Board of Education, former Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas wrote, "The kitchen at Powell Middle School is one of the smallest and least functional in the district, and it would be difficult for the school to ever serve its designed capacity of 1,200 students until the kitchen additional is completed."

The kitchen was not upgraded when the rest of the school was because of a lack of funding.

"We actually have the serving line in the dining room, so it takes up dining space," said Oaks. "It’s not a problem today because the school is not at its capacity, but we would have significant issues feeding all of the students in a timely manner if it were at its capacity."

The $1.5 million kitchen renovation project is on Knox County School's capital plan and is set to be funded in fiscal year 2019.

Since 2001, Knox County Schools spent more than $230 million on repairs and renovations. That does not include building new schools.

Board of Education members and Knox County Schools officials say money for capital improvement projects is allocated based on need and growth.

"We can use additional resources," said Russ Oaks, chief operating officer of Knox County Schools. "We could always use additional resources."

This year, four projects on the capital improvement plan did not have money attached.

The district says Halls High School is in need of an entire renovation, including new paint, lockers and ceiling tiles.

Nearby at Gibbs High School, the stadium at the school is the only one in the county where the district has not spent money for upgrades over the past decade.

Gibbs High School Home of the Eagles

Both projects are kept on the capital improvement plan, but the cost is to be determined, and there is no money attached for where the funding will come from. There is also no timeline for when the projects will start.

"Our school is in desperate need of a new stadium," said Angela Qualls, a parent at Gibbs High School. "A stadium affects not just parents of the athletes, but in our small community, part of the community is coming to a game on Friday nights."

Inside the school, parents and former students are taking it upon themselves to fund projects the district cannot afford.

The Gibbs High School Foundation was started two years ago and now raises money to repair an ailing auditorium, funding renovations through private donations.

Parents and former students are raising money to fund rennovations at Gibbs High School through private donations.

They sell bricks in front of the school to raise funds and have taken in donations from local businesses, including $26,000 from a local church.

"The school budget and the county budget do not provide all the needs that a school must have," said Roy Mullins, the former Interim Superintendent of Knox County Schools and current President of the Gibbs High School Foundation. "Every school has specific needs and there is just not available revenue anywhere else. So the foundation becomes a source of revenue for that."

Chapter 4

How are renovations and construction funded?

Knox County Schools has a budget of $10 million this year for capital improvements.

The Knox County Schools capital improvements budget is funded by 11 cents from every dollar collected on local option sales taxes in Knox County. In fiscal year 2018, that made up $10 million of the more than $470 million the district used this year, funding 10 different projects.

"We invest where the need is. When we have built new facilities, it has been largely because that is where the growth is," said Russ Oaks, KCS chief operating officer. "We always do the best we can with what we have."

The school system’s full budget is funded by revenue from county property taxes, local option sales taxes, the Knox County Wheel Tax, the state of Tennessee and the U.S. Government.

Knox County School leaders say they could always use more funding. However, that funding would have to come from taxpayers.

"We’re trying to build the best school system in the south here in Knoxville, so we don’t want to just get by," said Buzz Thomas, president of the Great Schools Partnership and former interim superintendent of Knox County Schools. "There’s no question that we’re going to have to increase our investments in schools at some point, and that means adjusting the tax rate."

In 2013, Carter Elementary opened up with a ribbon cutting and great fanfare, a welcome addition for a community that had previously sent children to school in a building built in the 1930s.

The nearly $14 million dollar project was paid for and built by Knox County, the Public Building Authority and Knox County Schools. The project was funded in part by selling off more than $11 million dollars of county land.

Building projects like Carter, the new Hardin Valley Middle School, the new Gibbs Middle School and Hardin Valley Academy are overseen by the county, not the school district. That’s because the county is responsible for paying the debt.

The nearly $35 million dollar Hardin Valley Middle School and more than $23 million dollar Gibbs Middle School will open for the 2018-2019 school year, a sign of tax dollars invested.

Chapter 5

Solutions to help schools around Knox County

The district has the plans, now all they need is the money.

Knox County Schools will spend $10 million on construction projects to improve schools this year. Still, many of the fixes they have planned have no money.

"We’re working to make sure that every single one of our 91 schools is able to be successful," said Buzz Thomas, former Interim Superintendent of Knox County Schools and current President of The Great Schools Partnership. "You try and get the politics out of it and look at what the needs of the community are and what the shape of the physical plant is."

Four elementary schools in the county are already over capacity with many more coming close. The district has plans to reduce overcrowding, but does not have the money for a permanent solution.

"At some point when you keep putting portables against a growth project, you’ve got to start looking at other ways to solve that problem," said Russ Oaks, Chief Operating Officer with Knox County Schools. "We have needs that we haven’t been able to have appropriations against."

The district’s North-Central Elementary solution recommends that a new elementary school be built in the north central part of the county. Along with significant rezoning affecting Adrian Burnett, Norwood, Powell and Inskip Elementary schools and a renovation of Adrian Burnett, the solution would help reduce the number of students in each classroom.

Reonvations and additions will soon begin at Inskip Elementary, part of a $6.5 million project.

The district’s Northwest Elementary solution would affect Hardin Valley Elementary and Karns Elementary. Both schools have at least 1,000 students and are expected to grow quickly. The district does not yet have a permanent solution and is using portable classrooms to address the need.

The problem now is money. Both plans are on the budget without any funding attached.

"You have to make choices every year about what you can do, what is absolutely necessary, and what is a luxury and how you can get the most bang for your buck," Oaks said. "The funding that we’ve got, I’ll say, what we’re working under over the next two or three years is significantly constrained."

Next year, the district will tackle 10 more projects with a budget of $12.4 million for capital improvements.

On the list, renovations to the kitchens and cafeterias at Powell Middle School and Powell High School.

Other projects like the Gibbs High School stadium upgrade will have to wait.

Gibbs High School Home of the Eagles

"They do with what they have and they’re up front with us," said Jason Webster, principal at Biggs High School. "They tell us, we can do this or we can do that, but sometimes we have to compromise."