School rezoning could unwind ’89

Sandra Clark

Knox County is poised to undo much of the rezoning for racial desegregation that has affected families and even home construction for almost 30 years.

The school board must accommodate the fall 2018 opening of two new schools – Gibbs Middle (600 students) and Hardin Valley Middle (1,200). Those 1,800 kids are currently zoned for middle school somewhere else. With several middle schools currently under capacity, the challenge is to fill the new schools while keeping the others open.

School board chair Patti Bounds talks with East Knox resident Donna Butler, at left, after last week’s meeting on rezoning.   Photo by S. Clark
School board chair Patti Bounds talks with East Knox resident Donna Butler, at left, after last week’s meeting on rezoning. Photo by S. Clark

Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas was at Gibbs Elementary School last week to hear from citizens. He got an earful, mostly from parents who do not want their children zoned (and bused) to Gibbs.

The Rev. John Butler, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he understands why Gibbs area parents wanted their kids schooled near home. “It’s a long way out here.” Butler authored the complaint under review by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. The complaint criticizes new construction at the county’s edges.

He said East Knoxville parents also want their kids to attend a modern, 21st Century school close to home.

James Spears, a 1991 graduate of Gibbs High School who is black, now has five kids in Gibbs schools. He said getting a new middle school “was a long chore … 25 years of grunt work.” He supports the new school.

Residents of Summer Rose said they want their kids to attend Shannondale, Gresham and Central High schools. “Don’t mess with Fountain City,” was their mantra.

Looking back

An effort to achieve racial balance fueled the rezoning debates of 1989-91, following the merger of the city and county school systems. Then-superintendent Earl Hoffmeister appointed a task force to rezone the schools, closing those not needed and achieving racial balance among those remaining. No high school should be more than 30 percent black, he said. The NAACP invited the OCR to observe the goings-on.

The plan was finalized, kicked around by the school board in at least three iterations and then butchered by Knox County Commission’s refusal to fund it.

Consultants recommended closing 24 schools. Hoffmeister wanted to close Fulton and Austin-East, building a new high school in the inner city. The school board decided to close fewer schools – although it did support the new high school on a 7-2 vote – but the commission said no.

Of the five high schools recommended for closure, two remain: Austin-East and Fulton.

■  Holston High was closed, becoming the middle school for an expanded Gibbs High zone.

■  Rule High was closed, with kids sent to West High, where zone lines were extended into West Hills for a new, expanded zone. That gamble paid dividends as West is now an International Baccalaureate high school.

■  South-Young High was closed, becoming a middle school for an expanded South-Doyle High zone. Black parents continue to complain about their kids being bused across the river, while South Knoxvillians grumble about discipline issues.

Five middle schools were recommended for closure: Doyle, Beardsley, Spring Hill, Christenberry and Vine. Of those, only Vine remains open.

Moving forward

To “unwind ’89” does not mean reopening all of those schools. Many were in poor condition and the school-age population has shifted to the county. But it could easily mean more compact zones and less busing, especially of African-American kids.

“Can we do away with zoning?” Cynthia Finch asked Thomas.

“Probably not,” he answered, “but we do have parental choice in Knox County. If we have room in a school, we’ll let you transfer into it.”

Transferring has become easier after a U.S. Supreme Court decision not to use race as a criterion in transfers.

Thomas summarized the Gibbs meeting: “What I’ve heard loud and clear is you want great community schools. … You want middle and high school zones to line up.”

He’s set four more 6 p.m. meetings: Jan. 10 at South-Doyle Middle; Jan. 17 at Hardin Valley Elementary; Jan. 24 at Holston Middle; and Jan. 31 at Vine Middle.

Thomas wants to present a rezoning plan to the school board in May.

County Commissioner Evelyn Gill said the county’s “piecemeal approach” is not good. She wants a comprehensive plan for the 14 schools in her district. Gill is the only African-American and the sole Democrat on the commission.

Thomas responded: “I understand that we are talking about children and families. We will tread very carefully. They are all our kids, and we will treat them accordingly.”

Gossip and lies

Charles Susano III is an archeologist, we hear, and now he’s interested in running for Circuit Court clerk. That’s great training for an office where he’s liable to find dead bones and relics – and that’s among the folks who actually show up for work!

Larsen Jay, founder of Random Acts of Flowers, is contemplating a run for an at-large seat on the Knox County Commission.

Bart Elkins of Powell asked Jay a random question when he heard his wife is from Chicago: Cubs or White Sox? Jay lifted his pants leg to show wacky Cubs socks. Bart said, “You are so my commissioner!”

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