Some Alcoa school board members are questioning whether the high school is emphasizing athletics over academics, citing the admission of a nonresident student previously suspended in Maryville and the hiring of another student-athlete’s father.

The issue was in the spotlight during the Board of Education’s work session Monday, prompted by the hiring of a special education teacher who isn’t yet certified for the position but whose son plays football and basketball.

Board member Brandy Bledsoe said she had received multiple calls from people unhappy with what they perceive as the district recruiting a football player and giving his dad a job.

“Whether we give him a job or not, his son’s coming here,” Director Brian Bell told the board, saying the rising junior had been enrolled since May and the family moved to Alcoa.

The hiring of Phillip Burden as a special education teacher at Alcoa High School was part of the personnel report to the school board for its meeting Tuesday.

Burden has been a teacher for eight years at Sevier County’s alternative school, Bell said, but he was not previously certified as a special education teacher.

Through a Carson-Newman University program to fill positions in high-need areas, such as special education, Burden will receive a “practitioner license” before school starts next month but still be required to complete coursework.

“He meets a couple of our criteria,” Bell said. “No. 1 he was a male special education teacher, and we wanted that at the high school. No. 2, he’s a basketball coach, and we wanted that. And No. 3, he fits the bill, he was a minority, and we wanted that.”

The position was advertised for a “special education teacher/boys basketball coach/assistant football coach,” Bell explained. Six women applied as well as one other male, but Bell said, “We didn’t know him, so we didn’t interview him.”

He told the board Burden is primarily coming in as a basketball coach, although he’ll probably have some football duties.

Board member Clayton Bledsoe questioned the father leaving a teaching position for which he was certified for the position in Alcoa.

“It just looks bad,” Brandy Bledsoe said.

Clayton Bledsoe said the problem is that Burden’s son is a “super athlete.” Cam Burden was the quarterback in Sevier County for the past two seasons, and he is expected to play football and basketball in Alcoa.

“What people perceive is that you’re not running the school system,” Clayton Bledsoe told Bell.

“Why is that?” the director asked.

“Because coach (Gary) Rankin’s running it. He gets anybody that he wants to in his school,” Clayton Bledsoe said, raising the issue of another student athlete who after a three-day suspension in Maryville City Schools was allowed to enroll as a nonresident tuition student at Alcoa High School.

Tuition students

Clayton Bledsoe noted that Alcoa has student athletes from “Halls, Sevierville, Canada, North Dakota.”

“If they’re good students we’re all right with that,” Bell said.

“I disagree with that,” Clayton Bledsoe said.

“This is Alcoa city school system,” he said. “If it’s all about football, forget about academics. ... I love football, but this shenanigans goes on about getting kids from all over East Tennessee is a bunch of crap.” The district may as well become a private school, he said.

“This is an academic school. I played football, basketball and baseball,” Bledsoe continued. “This is about our kids getting an education, not whether they can come up here and kick a football, throw a football, catch a basketball.”

“That’s what everybody’s perceiving now, is all we do is compete against Maryville to see who’s going to win the next state championship. Well who gives a rat’s,” Clayton Bledsoe said before trailing off.

“Have we dropped in education, Clayton? Have our scores gone down?” Bell asked.

“No, because you get tuition students that are A plus at the top, and they take care of the bottom tier,” the board member replied. “It’s always been that way. Take the tuition students out and see what you get.”

“I agree with that,” Bell said.

“We need our tuition students,” Chairwoman Julie Rochelle said.

Clayton Bledsoe said he’s in favor of giving students second chances but wondered why the boy who had previously had a discipline problem in Maryville wasn’t put in Alcoa’s alternative program, the Pershing Academy of Learning.

“If he was in the PAL program he couldn’t play football,” Rochelle replied.

Clayton Bledsoe also noted that the student was allowed to enroll five weeks before the end of school and participate in sports. “I just think we’re doing a poor job of checking these kids out,” he said.

“Everybody perceives it as he got in because he plays sports,” Brandy Bledsoe said. “It seems like we’re more focused on sports than anything else. That’s the feedback I’m getting from parents, and even staff,” on the two situations.

Alcoa’s policy for transfer students states they “must be in good standing in behavior, attendance, and academics from previous system.”

“We do not take kids who are on suspensions from other school systems,” Bell said. This student had completed the suspension and then moved into the Blount County Schools district.

He told the board Alcoa has had more problems with students whose parents are teachers than this tuition student so far.

Clayton Bledsoe said he hopes the boy does succeed.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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