Over the past decade Blount County Schools enrollment fell by more than 800 students. Today five of the 20 traditional schools have enrollments that are less than 60% of their capacity.
With those figures in hand Blount County commissioners and school board members began discussing Tuesday, Nov. 5, options such as closing some buildings, adjusting attendance zones and reconfiguring schools.
Members of the Blount County Commission’s Education Committee had requested the enrollment and capacity numbers, and BCS Director Rob Britt presented the figures during the committee’s meeting at Mary Blount Elementary School.
The capacity estimates are based on the number of classrooms in each school, without the type of detailed analysis of programming needs the city school districts have done in recent years with their capacity studies.
“We didn’t go out and spend $20,000 to have an expert come in and look at every crevice and every spot in the district,” he said. “But I think it’s pretty accurate.”
“What, if anything, can we do to utilize space in schools that are less than 60% of capacity?” asked Commissioner Mike Akard.
Porter, Lanier, Friendsville and Union Grove elementary schools fall in that category, as well as Eageton Middle School. So does the Samuel Everett School of Innovation, home to the district’s four alternative programs, which are growing.
Britt explained that an exploratory team is looking at converting Eagleton Middle School into Eagleton College and Career Academy, serving grades six through 12. The school currently has 379 students in grades six through eight and an estimated capacity of 671.
The academy could take some enrollment currently going to Heritage middle and high schools, eliminating portable classrooms at those two buildings, which are over capacity now.
“That seems to be something that has a lot of potential to check off a lot of boxes, without a tremendous amount of money being spent to make it happen,” Akard said.
“It’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time about the schools,” he said.
Later Akard elaborated by saying that the academy could help to retain some students in the Eagleton area who transfer to Alcoa High School, which is closer than Heritage. A decrease in Heritage High School enrollment also would change the class under which it competes in athletics, potentially making it more competitive.
Debbie Sudhoff, who chairs the Blount County Board of Education, raised the question of what may happen when Pellissippi Parkway is extended to U.S. 321.
“We’re going to see an explosion of growth on that side of the county,” she said. “We don’t want to make any rash decisions in closing schools.”
The extension of Pellissippi Parkway could affect enrollment at Walland, Townsend, Porter, Prospect and Eagleton schools, she said.
“What we’d better do is make sure that the city doesn’t start annexing every bit of it down both sides,” Commissioner Steve Mikels said.
In response to a question from Commissioner Brad Bowers about attendance zones, Britt told the committee that the district would want to give parents plenty of notice about any potential change. The earliest any change would be made is the 2021-22 school year, he said.
“It’s a very painful decision,” Sudhoff noted, explaining that she went through it as a parent when Porter was rezoned with the opening of Prospect and changes in middle school attendance.
Commissioner Robbie Bennett noted that Lanier, Friendsville and Porter previously were K-12 schools and are deeply rooted in the community.
“When you say anything about closing Porter, do you know what that does to my heart?” said Commissioner Dawn Reagan.
A decade ago, before Prospect opened, Porter Elementary’s enrollment was 744 students in kindergarten through grade five. Today it’s just 260, with the lowest ratio to capacity in the district, at 44.44%.
“Nobody wants to close schools,” said school board member Robbie Kirkland, “yet you’re looking a probably $1.8 to $2.4 million in operating expenses just to keep those schools open.”
In response to a question from The Daily Times after the meeting, the BCS fiscal administrator, Troy Logan, said he has estimated the annual savings of closing a smaller school at an average of about $1.1 million, excluding cafeteria costs. The savings is based on a reduction in staffing and savings from utilities, maintenance and other expenses.
Bowers said Pellissippi Parkway eventually will be extended, and that will affect the area around Porter.
Sudhoff said she thinks Walland will see some impact too.
“Porter’s going to need some major work,” Kirland said. The main building was constructed in 1968, and the auditorium dates to 1955, although some renovations were done in 2003, according to a BCS facilities report.
“Outside of Walland is getting in pretty bad shape,” he added. That school was built in 1963, with a renovation in 2001. With development in the area, he said, “I think in the future you’re going to have to look at moving Walland school.”
Kirkland said the county school district is very efficiently run, and to raise salaries, “I don’t see where that money is coming from other than to get more efficient than we already are.”
“Sentiment is going to have to be set aside if we’re going to pay our people what they’re worth,” he said.
Commissioner Staci Crisp-Lawhorn asked about the possibility of changing the grade configurations within schools, such as going to kindergarten through grade six at the elementary level, and then grades seven through nine.
Britt said that has come up, including with the Eagleton academy proposal. “That’s something that we certainly can consider and will look at as we go forward,” he said.