KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knox County Commission met Tuesday to discuss and vote on several resolutions. Among them was a proposal that would allow the Knox County Law Director to hire outside counsel to help in a lawsuit regarding mask requirements and COVID-19 safety in schools.
It passed Tuesday evening at around 10:30 p.m. Only funds from the Knox County Board of Education would be spent on an attorney.
The lawsuit led to an injunction from a federal judge, who required the school system to return to its original COVID-19 safety plan, which included a mask requirement. The lawsuit stemmed from an earlier controversy around Knox County Schools' decision to make masks optional while COVID-19 cases rose in the area.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said their decision discriminated against their at-risk children by making school an unsafe place for them to attend, due to the increased risk of COVID-19.
Board member Betsy Henderson said she wanted to avoid students having to wear masks as the lawsuit continued. She created a letter demanding the law department hire outside counsel after plaintiffs requested KCS take steps to ensure people were wearing masks in schools, including people who would sporadically check schools.
The law director assured KCS members that any attorney they hired would not do anything differently than they have, and said it would simply come as an unnecessary cost to taxpayers.
In the letter, Henderson said if the law director did not hire another attorney, she would ask the Knox County Commission to give the Board of Education power to hire them.
The resolution only gives permission for the Knox County Law Director to hire an attorney to help in matters related to the federal lawsuit. They must have experience in cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The Board of education will also be able to approve the chosen attorney by voting in an open meeting. If they vote against the proposed new attorney, the law director will need to provide alternatives.
The resolution will also only take effect as long as the Board of Education votes for it in an open meeting, and expenses for outside counsel will need to be paid from funds given to the Board of Education.
The resolution was different from an original version which would have replaced the law director with a new attorney, according to commissioner Courtney Durrett. She said she supported the resolution only because it would have given the board more legal representation, regardless of the mask requirement.
Charles Busler also criticized the resolution, since it would cause the county to spend a lot of money on a law firm or an attorney when the issue had already been argued by the Attorney General. He said he doubted many attorneys would be more effective than the Attorney General at arguing KCS's stance.
Mike Moyers also mentioned that the judge cited KCS's decisions not to implement a mask mandate despite recommendations from the CDC, the Knox Co. Health Department and pediatric officials. He said as a result of those decisions, the federal judge was not likely to change his mind about the mask requirement now.
He also said the school board has not voted on to formally say it wants outside counsel, so it would be inaccurate to say the board wants more attorneys. Instead, the request was made by individual board members.
However, both commissioners said they were eager to lift a mask requirement.
Kyle Ward said that he was more concerned with what he heard from constituents than what he heard from KCS, and said constituents wanted to give the board the ability to choose to hire outside counsel.
Justin Biggs also said he was concerned students leaving KCS for homeschooling and education alternatives could result in less funding for the school district. Leaders in KCS later specified that despite the mask requirement, the enrollment in September was slightly over 59,000 and as of Feb. 22, was slightly less than 58,000.
Some commissioners and education leaders also said that enrollment could drop for many reasons such as drop-outs and families moving, as well as parents pulling students out of school due to mask requirements.