A large number of people turned out Monday night for a school board work session that lasted into the night. The turnout was in response to proposed cuts to Knox County school programs as part of a bid to close a multi-million dollar budget gap. The school district is up against costs that are predicted to be around $2.3 million more than revenues.
Superintendent Bob Thomas’s recommendations include cuts to Project Grad and magnet schools, suspending magnet programs at Sarah Moore Greene and Green Magnet Academy.
A crowd of supporters were outside the building during the school board’s work session Monday night in support of magnet school and Project Grad funding. The group couldn’t get inside because the building was at capacity.
Two bus loads of supporters were brought to the work session and the schedule for the meeting was changed. Non-budget related discussion was moved up to the beginning of the meeting. There was then a recess to allow the supporters to leave, and then those who signed up to speak will be allowed to re-enter first.
Supporters say they can’t imagine Knox County students not having resources like Project Grad.
“The layperson who doesn’t have a child in school right now or isn’t in tune with what’s going on in our school system doesn’t know how it would negatively affect students who benefit so much from this program. The program actually helps them as they matriculate into college and helps them finance their education,” said Project Grad parent Patricia Hammonds.
A memo provided by Superintendent Thomas points to higher costs in health insurance premiums, retirement contributions, transportation, new grade levels at the charter school and the cost of opening two middle schools as the reasons for the budget shortfall.
“When you’re talking about a million to a million and a half funding, whenever funding is cut – there’s definitely going to be an affect city-wide, county-wide.,” said Travis Ridley, a parent.
The meeting lasted for hours as the school board heard from nearly 90 speakers who signed up for the public forum segment. The marathon meeting was still going on as of just before midnight.
Those signed up to speak included students like Tylen Riddic, an Austin-East sophomore and Project Grad student.
“I understand they’re trying to make it so other kids have a chance. But at the same time, less fortunate friends don’t have a chance,” said Riddic.
Many waited hours just to hear their name called, like a Project Grad Graduate Uriah Rickey. She’s a Fulton High School graduate and Valedictorian and now a student at UT.
“The circumstances and the obstacles that we face as inner city schools, as minorities, as underrepresented minorities, as students who are low income, as students from single parent homes,” said Richey.
The board openly discussed the cuts and asked questions, citing statistics and data from research many said they did before the meeting.
Board member Amber Rountree said, “I think he [Superintendent Bob Thomas] gave a great detailed explanation in the importance of focusing our money on programs that work.”
Thomas described the budget as a fluid situation and suggested that Monday night’s meeting could shape what happens next.
The board will vote on the budget on Wednesday.