Three school districts have been operating in Blount County for about a century, and local leaders say that’s likely to continue.
“We have three really good systems right now that are doing great things, meeting the needs of kids,” said Mike Winstead, director of Maryville City Schools.
Added Rob Britt, director of Blount County Schools: “I am proud to live in a place where three school systems can live together, can cooperate with one another, can actually share activities and some resources together, and I don’t know anywhere you can go and find three better school systems that coexist. I’m proud of that.”
Although county leaders have considered consolidating the school systems through the decades, including in the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s, no one today expects that to happen.
“The community ownership in Blount County for their local school system is at the highest level I’ve known,” said Brian Bell, who was an assistant director of Blount County Schools before becoming director of Alcoa City Schools in 2011. “They love them. It’s part of their identity.”
“Maryville High School, Maryville City Schools is part of Maryville’s identity. Our high school, our school system is part of Alcoa’s identity. To move away from that, the city would be lopping off one of its arms,” Bell said.
One area where the directors do disagree is funding.
“I don’t think we have a level playing field,” Britt said.
Blount County Schools’ per-pupil funding is below the state average.
County property tax is divided among the districts, but the cities bring in additional revenue through their own property taxes.
With that additional funding, Britt said, “They’re able to do some things that challenge us.”
One of those things is offering teachers higher salaries and benefits.
”We have one pie, and how it gets divided is difficult,” Britt said. “We agree to disagree agreeably.”
Blount County’s share of state dollars also is partly based on the revenue capacity of the cities.
When the state of Tennessee divvies up funding under the Basic Education Program, it considers how much money localities can raise on their own.
In calculating fiscal capacity, it considers the county as a whole, not three separate districts. So an increase in the ability of cities to generate money can mean less state funding for county schools.
“Blount County government insufficiently funds Blount County Schools. Because of that, Blount County really underfunds all three school systems,” Bell said. “Maryville City and Alcoa City do a fantastic job of funding their school systems because it’s a priority, and I wish the county government would have that same priority.”
In 2015, the County Commission voted to allocate 4 cents from the county property tax for capital projects in the county, with no split for the cities.
”I question how they can do that and feel good about what they’re doing,” Winstead said. “Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right.”
In addition to levying additional property taxes to pay for schools, the city districts also can charge nonresident students tuition to attend their schools, something the county schools are not allowed to do under state law, although they still receive state funding based on enrollment.
The smaller enrollment in Alcoa and Maryville high schools limits their ability to offer some foreign language, advanced placement and career and technical education classes.
The Blount County Schools system offers more than two dozen programs of study, providing courses ranging from cosmetology to coding to collision repair.
After the Blount County vocational building opened in 1973 on what is now the campus of William Blount High School, both Maryville and Alcoa sent students by bus to attend classes there. Now, however, Blount County’s own students fill the classes.
Even within Knox County, Winstead noted, the schools don’t offer the same programs. Instead, each needs to match students’ interest and workforce needs.
”If the three districts were one, I don’t think you’d see much difference in what’s offered at the four high schools because right now that meets the programming needs of the students at those high schools,” he said.
However, Winstead said he’d love to see more cooperation among the schools sharing classes.
”If a kid wanted to take an AP class here that’s not offered in the other three high schools or if we have a kid who wants to take welding, which we don’t offer here,” he said, “I’d be very open to those conversations and how to break down those walls to serve the individual students.”
In 2009, Maryville and Alcoa studied the possibility of operating a joint facility, perhaps a school focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Interest waned after federal funding for a STEM academy went to Knoxville.
In recent years all three districts have been working with Pellissippi State Community College and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology on a plan to open a new advanced manufacturing “megalab” on Pellissippi’s Blount County campus.
“There’s no way that we could build and maintain a mechatronics lab of that caliber,” Britt said. “We just wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
When students take dual enrollment courses on the community college campus, they can earn credit for high school and college-level work.
“Kids from all four high schools will be in those classes together as juniors and seniors,” Winstead said.
”When it comes to academics, we collaborate very well,” Bell said.
Conversations among the directors and other administrators range from early literacy to providing postsecondary opportunities to students.
When Alcoa was planning its Alcoa Connects initiative to provide one computer for every student, one of the first places Bell looked was to Maryville’s iReach initiative. Now Bell said he’s interested in Blount County’s initiative to offer an alternative school of choice on its Everett campus.
”Brian, Rob and I text and talk all the time,” Winstead said.
The collaboration most visible to the community is the One Book Blitz, in which students in kindergarten through fifth grade have read the same book each January for the past two years.
Behind the scenes, the project allows elementary teachers to share ideas and lesson plans related to the book across schools and districts, but that’s not the only cross-district collaboration.
Middle school principals also meet, Winstead said, and joint advisory councils bring together career and technical education teachers with local industry leaders.
Winstead envisions teachers sharing lesson plans and assessment ideas not only across districts but also across the state and nation. With technology now, he sees the possibility of districts sharing a teacher in hard-to-find specialties.
For example, a physics teacher could teach 100 students across 10 campuses.
”We haven’t seen where technology can take us yet,” Bell said, imagining the Netflix-style “delivery on demand” model evolving in education. “I don’t know what it looks like yet, but I think it’s coming,” Bell said.
Added Britt: “I think there will be more sharing of resources as we move forward. We’ll be able to do something that’s much greater for children if the three of us collaborate.”