Roane County Schools consolidation plan explained, but county commission votes no

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Monday night, Roane County leaders voted on a plan to build a new high school and merge three existing schools, with the county commission voting 11-4 against the consolidation. 

Next, there will be a school board meeting to discuss new steps, if any.

“It’s what you deal with in this job,” Gary Aytes, Roane County Schools Superintendent said Monday night following the ‘no’ vote for the consolidation.

The Plan

The plan would build a new school across from the Roane County Park and close Roane County, Rockwood, and Harriman High Schools. It would also move Harriman Middle to the old high school and move Ridgevew Elementary into Rockwood High’s old building. 

Gary Aytes, Roane County Schools Superintendent, thinks the new facility will provide many new opportunities for students, whether they are pursuing a college or technical path.

The district currently offers students the chance to earn a certificate in eight industries, while in high school; however, they’re spread among five different high schools.

Putting them under one roof expands access for students and Aytes says will enable them to add seven more industry-certified programs to the school. Aytes hopes this plan will have a 90 percent success rate at getting students ready for college or equipped for a good-paying job. 

“In small schools, you don’t have the resources to do those kinds of things. Right now, we have eight industry-certified programs, but they’re spread out across five high schools For instance, we have a machining class at Oliver Springs right now, but we can only get about 20 students in that class,” he said.

Currently, Roane County High School, with about 700 students, is their largest in the district. It has seven career and technical education courses, with an option to earn an industry certificate in health science and welding.

At Harriman, he says there is “no space for those kinds of classes.” 

Aytes says he began the project in 2014. 

Aytes also says the Tennessee Department of Education endorses the district’s plan, citing they’ve pledged $3.2 million to aid in the construction of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) program, which will consist of machining, welding, megatronics, and drafting teaching, he explained.

Aytes also says the school with triple their fine arts program and allow students to join junior ROTC. 

The consolidated school will consist of roughly 1,500 students. 

The Costs 

The total cost for district expenses is $68 million, which includes upgrades to Oliver Springs and Midway. The district is already working to renovate Oliver Springs Middle School into a K-12 STEAM Academy.

Midway Community schools are getting upgrades to their sewer system. With those expenses taken away, Aytes says it leaves $60-61 million for the new high school. 

Aytes says Monday night’s vote is approval on the new school concept, not on the dollar amount.

Aytes believes the district can lower the cost by fundraising and working with private business to get the taxpayer burden lowered. The district will also save money with four facilities going offline, Oliver Springs High School, Roane County High School, Harriman Middle School, and Ridgeview High School. 

Roane County, Harriman, and Ridgeview would all go for sale.

The cost savings from taking the four buildings offline, the superintendent said, is estimated at more than $830,000 per year. 

The district pays for facilities through bonds. In 2023, when Aytes believes the new school would be completed, some bonds will roll off, also helping with that burden. The private sector has already pledged support, Aytes says. To him, there is optimism about the change the new school can bring a more qualified work-force in the future. 

Excitement brimming

Ellen Dailey was teaching seniors Monday, but it wasn’t long ago she was a senior at Roane County High School herself.

While the dynamic of going from a student to a faculty member might be different, she says the building hasn’t changed at all.

“I’m excited about the idea of change. I think the community is ready for it,” she said. Dailey believes the new space would be more secure and lead to better functionality. 

“It’s an opportunity for us to prepare our students to be workforce, career ready or college ready at a rate that we would never have anticipated being able to do this before,” Aytes said. 

Aytes thinks this could make Roane County a model for the state, but knows it’s difficult for some to let go of the community ties to the old buildings.

“In rural areas, schools tend to be the center of the community. So, you’re asking them to move that five miles down the road. That’s difficult,” Aytes said. 

Loftin Gerberding, STEM teacher at Roane County High, remembers being a student there, too.

“I moved around a lot as a kid and I finally got a chance to go to one school for four years and it means a lot to me. As far as the building goes, it’s not the people. The people in the city and in the county are the things I feel more of an attachment to,” Gerberding said. 

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