Minutes after the Loudon County Board of Education toured the newly renovated Philadelphia Elementary School cafeteria, members were retooling their strategy for presenting future school construction plans to Loudon County Commission.
The new approach comes in the wake of a failed vote to supply $5 million to renovate Loudon Elementary School and combine it with the adjacent middle school.
“I think if anything this help points us in a direction I think that might be more conducive to both the board and the county commission,” Director of Schools Jason Vance told the school board about the rejection to fund the project. “Initially, I was aggravated. I was frustrated. I was upset, but the more I thought about it, the more I think that what we've done is we've brought great attention to the 8 cents that is still available potentially.”
The school combination is expected to cost about $5 million — $2 million to connect the two schools and $3 million to renovate the two campuses and remove classroom portables.
During its workshop Thursday in Philadelphia, the board considered ways to trim initial cost estimates, which included canceling plans to connect the schools, renovating the facilities and building an office complex at the middle school.
Vance said that if pressed to trim the cost of the project, he would rather connect the schools and ax the renovation.
“Why would you not renovate?” board Vice Chairman Leroy Tate said. “We've sit here for years and said those classrooms were the worst things in the world. Now, we've got an opportunity to renovate. Now, we don't want to renovate them?”
“I'm saying if I had it my way, I'd do everything,” Vance said. “But if I only had to pick and choose, I would (rather) want to connect them than not renovate them.”
Board member Ric Best said he didn't think the school needed offices for student services personnel who were not full-time employees. He also suggested potentially nixing renovation plans except for the classroom pods “relative to inaccessibility.”
Board member Scott Newman said if the school system did not connect the two schools, the county would have to pay for two principals, two vice principals and two cafeteria managers to operate each separate campus.
“You're going to save some money on the front end but ... we're going to be running two schools instead of one, and so, in the long run, 10 years down the road, we're not saving anything really,” Newman said.
Best questioned whether the “entire commission” considered the combined elementary and middle schools as part of phase one.
“I think they're hearing us say that,” Vance said. “I don't know that we would say ‘entire'.”
Tate said the commission considers only the new school in Greenback, the Philadelphia Elementary cafeteria and the new Fort Loudoun Middle School as part of phase one.
“And until they get the dollar figure and how much that's going to cost — period — they're not going to do nothing,” Tate said. “They figure the three jobs going right now (are) phase one, and until the exact dollar amounts come in on what's paid, they're not going to do nothing else.”
Board Chairman Bobby Johnson Jr. pointed to another concern.
“The other part of the problem is you hear some of them saying, ‘Where in the world did Loudon High School come from?'” Johnson said. “And that's on our end, but we always said though that we would come back and evaluate where we were when it was time for phase two.”
Best said the board would also have to consider the “political realities” involved in decision-making. “There's going to have to be some kind of a juxtaposition here — if you want to use that word — between what we think that educational needs are and what the political realities are,” Best said. “Then we have to prioritize what we want to do maybe based more on what the political realities are.”
Vance encouraged board members to think about the needs in the school system before the January workshop when the board will continue discussions.
Newman said based on past experience on the school board, the commission was not going to move forward on funding another project until the board showed a “united front.”
“They need to know that this board is for every kid in this county,” Newman said. “It doesn't matter if they're in the north end or (in the south). That's the priorities, and if they want to play politics they can do that. If we come forward and say this is what we see as our priorities. We've studied it. We're not just throwing something out there to get something done. I mean, you can go to Loudon High School and see what the needs are.”