A1 A1
Maryville siblings create card business during COVID-19 pandemic

Prompted by a request from their grandmother, three Maryville students have started a business.

“Wow, that is quite an accomplishment for a year locked in your house,” Irene Crowder said of her grandchildren.

Crowder hasn’t visited family or friends since the pandemic began last spring, and when she broke her leg, she appreciated a postcard with a hand-drawn garden scene from a distant friend. So she asked her grandchildren to make her some cards to send.

“And the next thing I know, they’re talking about this business that they’ve started,” Crowder said. “So, it was just really kind of delightful.”

The startup

Since September 2020, Marie, Thomas and Elizabeth Tisdale have been operating Jessamine Studios, an online card shop.

The name was inspired by a plant that grew outside their previous house. With a yellow flower shaped like a trumpet, the jessamine is South Carolina’s state flower.

Marie, 17, needed work-based learning experience for Maryville High School, and Thomas, 14, would have taken a job last summer if not for the pandemic. Instead of going in separate directions, they created the business with Elizabeth, 12.

“It’s fun to work as a family because we like doing it together,” Elizabeth said, “and also we’re stuck together so it’s something to do together.”

With the pandemic they’ve all been working and learning from home.

Marie participates in an online workshop for job shadowing to supplement the work-based learning credit the school gives her for the sibling-owned-and-operated business.

“She’s thinking outside of the box, she’s doing higher than the expectations that some place on teenagers in general,” said Catherine Bledsoe, Marie’s work-based learning coordinator and special education teacher. “Marie has become a poster child of defining odds based on situation.”

Each child focuses on a different part of the business.

Marie produces inventory and keeps it organized. Thomas is the “computer specialist,” mother Kit Tisdale said. He also keeps up with the orders, and Elizabeth concentrates on the customer experience.

The family support “is just inspiring to us as educators because you see everything that this family, every opportunity and every door that they are trying to open for her,” Bledsoe said. “To me, that’s the most inspiring thing about this entire situation and that’s found in our own community here.”

The art

Each sibling contributes a different style of art for the cards. Marie draws with permanent markers and colored pencils. Thomas photographs, and Elizabeth illustrates on an iPad.

“Starting a business, my gosh, even as an adult, that’s an overwhelming thing,” Bledsoe said. “They’ve used all their talents and gifts that they each have and utilized that.”

A scroll through the Jessamine Studios website is in part a journey through Tennessee’s landscape and in part a look into the creative personalities of Marie and Elizabeth.

“Because I know their personalities, I can really pick out who does what,” Crowder said. “It gives a customer a lot of variety to choose from.”

Marie drew a series of states outlined by two black lines and filled with intersecting colors. A home-inspired set of cards included a teapot design, which is now sold out.

Her MHS connection is evident in her red and black thank you card, as well as a Power M design.

Marie also crafted a COVID-19-inspired card with overlapping quarantine bubbles.

Family hikes inspired many of Thomas’ pictures. On a walk in Cades Cove, he photographed a young black bear crossing a gravel path between fields, a closeup of wildflowers reaching to the tops of the distant Smokies and the mountainous Tennessee countryside.

Soft morning sun stretching from the horizon, vacant wooden bridges reaching over water and a careful closeup of a thistle are a few more of the scenes the junior high student found through his lens.

Elizabeth placed a collage of rainbow-colored balloons and another with red and black balloons on cards for birthdays or graduation.

The Coulter Grove Intermediate School student also made themed stickers inspired by her friends.

The Rose collection features a cartoon creation of “the sunniest girl we know,” the description reads. It’s complete with a flamingo inner tube, picnic basket and pink floppy hat, among other summer accessories.

The Sydney collection, “inspired by a most loyal friend,” features another cartoon creation, little gray dog, paw prints and flowers.

“Can you imagine as a sixth grader what doors and knowledge you’ve just gained by doing this?” Bledsoe said.

Although Jessamine Studios may not be their long-term career path, they’ve gained valuable knowledge about what it takes to be a professional, from how to present themselves to how to make a customer happy.

The family

Crowder said their mother taught them responsibility from a young age, starting with laundry. “Gathering up the dirty, washing, folding, running the washing machine and dryer,” Crowder said.

A family Christmas tradition has Marie fixing the cornbread dressing, Elizabeth fixing the fruit salad, “with way too many marshmallows,” Crowder said, and Thomas pitching in, too.

Apart from schoolwork and Jessamine Studios, they all have hobbies.

Marie has always loved intricate coloring books, working on a single page for hours at a time.

Thomas plays soccer and often would travel for games before the pandemic. He also played the clarinet for a while. Elizabeth is learning several different instruments, mostly the ukulele and clarinet, with a bit of guitar on the side.

“How many teenagers do you know out there that can say, ‘Hey I went out there and created my own business that is making a profit?’” Bledsoe said.

Their next step for the business is to increase marketing, and they hope one day their cards will be sitting on store shelves.

Blount County Commission, school board disagree over funding source for Eagleton College and Career Academy

The Blount County Commission supports creating the Eagleton College and Career Academy but disagrees with the school board over how to pay for the project.

After more than an hour of discussion last week, the commission voted to approve spending $298,000 on converting Eagleton Middle School to serve grades 6-12, but from a different funding source than the Board of Education.

The commission’s Budget Committee had recommended the change, and school board member Debbie Sudhoff said during the public comment period at the beginning of the commission’s Feb. 18 meeting that Blount County Schools’ attorney said that committee only has the authority to approve or deny, not amend.

Nineteen commissioners voted to approve the spending through Fund 141, the school district’s operating budget. Commissioners Brad Bowers and Dawn Reagan abstained.

Asked if she would like to place a vote after first abstaining, Reagan replied, “No, because I feel like we’re breaking the law.”

Fund change

In February 2020, both the Budget Committee and the commission had approved spending $482,000 on the project from the Fund 141 fund balance. Because of COVID-19, the school district did not move forward with the work that budget year and its plans to start the academy last August, so the money remained in that account.

In December 2020, the school board approved spending $298,000 to start ECCA from Fund 177, which is designated for capital projects and comes from property taxes not split with the city school districts.

Commissioners asked both the Budget Committee and the school board why they wanted to change the funding source.

Budget Committee member Sharon Hannum, who offered the amendment this month to the school board’s request, said that from her standpoint the money should come from the same place agreed to during the previous budget year.

“I’m not sure the Budget Committee can do this,” Commissioner Brad Bowers said, offering an amendment to the commission that would have approved the appropriation from Fund 177, as the school board approved this budget year.

Board member Tom Stinnett said, “We established 177 to fix problems that were existing and take care of buildings that needed some work done to them. We did not create 177 to create a new school.”

Bowers responded, “This is not a new school. This is to do capital improvements on an existing school.”

“If the school board wants to spend it out of 177, that’s the school board’s prerogative,” Commissioner Dodd Crowe said.

Bowers’ amendment failed with a 10-11 vote, with Commissioners Mike Akard, Jared Anderson, Mike Caylor, Jim Hammontree, Jackie Hill, Tom Hood, Jeff Jopling, Joe McCauley, Steve Mikels, Brian Robbins and Stinnett voting “No.”

Discussion continued on a resolution to appropriate the money from Fund 141, and Sudhoff explained the board’s change.

All the money in Fund 177 for the budget year ending June 30 had been allocated when the district decided to move forward with ECCA, so it voted to use money from the fund balance of its general operating budget, Fund 141.

“We could not go to that capital fund because there were no funds available,” she explained, and the money requested at that time was from previously undesignated revenues in Fund 141, the fund balance.

Sudhoff and some commissioners explained the money would not be used for adding on to the building but improvements such as replacing bathroom fixtures designed for small children when that building served elementary grades. The school board has trimmed the amount requested by eliminating some cafeteria equipment and furniture from the total.

Clock ticking

Commissioner Scott King said delaying action leaves current eighth graders in limbo. If the project moves forward, they will stay at the same building for ninth grade instead of going to Heritage High School when the new school year begins Aug. 2.

“It’s their money anyways, and we’re failing these kids out on the east side of town again, which is my district,” King said. “This is not fair to the kids or the people on that side of town.”

Bowers also voiced concern about the school board having to vote again if the commission did not approve the funding from Fund 177, as the school board had voted to do. He also noted that when the school board voted during the previous budget year to use the money from its fund balance, schools weren’t dealing with the impact of COVID-19. “I feel it’s a better use of our money to use it out of 177,” he said.

“I just wonder if we’re setting a precedent here in telling the school board how they can spend money, and I don’t want to to that,” Bowers said, “Whether I agree with them all the time or not, they need to live and die by their decisions just as County Commission does. I’d just like to see Eagleton get up and running, bottom line.”

Crowe also said he disagreed with how the Budget Committee handled the issue but did not want to risk delaying the project. Although he initially abstained during the final vote, Crowe changed to “Yes” in the end.

Board member Robbie Bennett also said he would vote “Yes” to avoid delay but did not like telling the school board which fund to use.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Sudhoff again said that she does not believe the Budget Committee has the authority to change the fund in a request from the school board. “We all have to understand our authority,” she said.

Later Akard said the Budget Committee could simply deny a request.

“We don’t rubber stamp yeses on requests for money,” the commissioner said. “Our job to represent our taxpayers is to evaluate the need and the source of the funds. ... We might be opening up a Pandora’s box by challenging the legality of what fund we want to get it from when it’s just as easy for those five people to say no and it doesn’t come before the commission at all. Our goal should be to get the kids what they need rather than squabbling over which fund it comes out of.”

Rutherford County weighs in on convenience voting centers

After the prospect of convenience voting centers in Blount County sparked controversy last month, the county branch of the League of Women Voters hosted a town hall meeting Feb. 17 with elections officials from Rutherford County, the first county in Tennessee to use the centers.

More than 50 people tuned in to the meeting — several of whom serve on the Blount County Commission, which decided not to vote on the centers during its January meeting.

Commissioners pulled from the meeting agenda a resolution to adopt convenience voting centers, which would give voters the ability to vote at any precinct and potentially halve the number of polling places, after County Attorney Craig Garrett said the move would be outside the commission’s authority.

Tennessee state law T.C.A. § 2-3-101 leaves the authority to designate or change voting locations with county election commissions, and the Blount County Election Commission favored enacting convenience voting centers with a super majority vote in December.

Blount County Administrator of Elections Susan Knopf, who spoke at the town hall meeting, said the goal of the centers is not to limit voter accessibility, but rather, to expand it.

“This is about voter convenience first and foremost. If we can get more voters than typically vote on Election Day, that’s what the League of Women Voters want and we want as well,” Knopf said.

But many people are concerned that reducing the number of polling places would prevent people from voting and inconvenience those who do.

County Commissioner Jeff Jopling posed questions about the accessibility of the convenience centers for his constituents, many of whom reside in the Townsend area.

“I think just because of the size of my district, it does make us a little unique in that,” he said. “I would like before (the commission) meeting to get some clarification if they do indeed have plans to make sure there is a voting center in Townsend.”

The municipalities of Louisville, Rockford and Townsend passed resolutions opposing the move and encouraging the County Commission not to approve the plan.

Rutherford County officials, however, say the centers have worked seamlessly.

Alan Farley, administrator of elections for Rutherford County, said voters love the system.

“If I was to tell the voters of Rutherford County that we’re going back to the old format, I would literally have to leave the county because they would run me out of here,” Farley said.

Since Rutherford enacted convenience voting centers in 2018, Farley said there have been more accessible voting locations for commuters, less money spent to employ poll workers and decreased confusion surrounding which precinct matches which addresses.

Rutherford County, home to Tennessee’s sixth-largest city Murfreesboro, is obviously different from Blount, which is largely rural and has 200,000 fewer residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Despite these differences, Farley said convenience voting centers could benefit counties like Blount.

“Take the numbers out of it,” he said. “I know people in our surrounding counties, which are small counties. They’re just as busy. ... Everybody’s on the go, and so that is the biggest plus for us — the convenience of voting anywhere in the county.”

The 2018 gubernatorial election, the first in which Rutherford County used the centers, saw a 14.4% increase in voters over the November 2016 election.

Since 2018, Wilson, Williamson and Monroe counties have enacted the centers.

League of Women Voters of Rutherford County former President Leslie Collum said using convenience centers is simply having early voting on Election Day.

“What we have found in Rutherford County is more voters vote during early voting than during Election Day,” she said. “That’s what works for them. ... That system is a good plan for this community and has worked so well, and now we let them do that on Election Day.”

Knopf repeatedly has asserted the centers would be an extension of early voting, which has seen an uptick in popularity in Blount County over the past few years.

Since the centers did not make it to a vote at last month’s commission meeting, voting in Blount County will stay the same for now, with early voting locations and current precincts still accessible.

The earliest convenience voting centers could be incorporated into Blount County, Knopf said, would be 2024.