Knoxville College Faces Delays to Online Classes and New Repair Deadlines

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Knoxville College will not be resuming classes online this fall as had been hoped, a college official has acknowledged.

The historically black college, founded in 1875, lost its accreditation in 1997 and stopped holding classes last year. The 39-acre Mechanicsville campus fell into disrepair while the college’s debt mounted. This summer, the city issued emergency cleanup orders for most of the buildings, indicating they are unsafe for use. The former A.K. Stewart Science Hall is believed to be so contaminated by chemicals that environmental regulators are considering listing it as a state Superfund site.

Yet as late as July, college officials were still stating their intent to resume classes in the fall semester, albeit online.

Now James Reese, chairman of the college board of trustees, says, “I don’t think we’re going to make it. Hopefully by the second semester.”

Reese says a committee of the board has been working on the curriculum and deciding which majors the college would continue to offer, but initial courses would likely be the same freshman general-education track as in the past. The difference is that all classes would be provided only via the Internet.

Knoxville College must get authorization from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission before enrolling students again. When the college suspended classes, the commission downgraded its status to “conditional authorization,” which allows college leaders to work on restructuring but little else.

If it wants to resume classes next semester, the college has less than a month to submit detailed information about its planned curriculum, finances, and physical condition of the buildings it is using, says Julie Woodruff, director of postsecondary school authorization and lead attorney for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“I don’t know if they are planning to restart programs they had before or if they are completely changing their focus,” Woodruff says. The college, which owes the federal government about $1 million and whose campus has been under a lien of $6 million more, would also have to show its financials are in order.

“It’s almost like starting from scratch. It’s no easy task,” Woodruff says. “Basically, because of everything that has happened with them, they would have to establish that all our minimum requirements have been met, including that the facilities they plan to use are in accordance with local ordinances.”

Reese has said staff would run the online courses from the college’s library building or an annex to its historic chapel. A large crack is visible in one brick outer wall of the library, where a few staff and volunteers still work in the basement. City building code enforcement officials had proposed labeling both buildings as too dangerous for people to enter. But at a Friday hearing the city’s public officer, David Brace, gave the college 90 days to repair them. (The officer also issued an emergency repair order for the science building.)

Woodruff says she is not aware of another college in Tennessee that has switched from offering classes on campus to exclusively online. The college will have to submit additional information demonstrating that it can handle the technical aspects of this option, including proof that it is backing up data in multiple ways in case of a technical failure.

“We have not finished the research needed for how we’ll do the online classes, but we have a feeling that we can,” Reese says, adding that he doesn’t know how much that step will cost. “Hopefully by the time we hear back from the state, we’ll have a better idea” of what the expense will be, he says.

If the college provides all the required information by the Oct. 3 deadline set by the state, the commission’s committee on post-secondary educational institutions will review it in November and make a recommendation to the full commission, which could vote on it in November, Woodruff says.

Reese says the next meeting of the Knoxville College Board of Trustees is scheduled for Oct. 22.

Condition of Campus Buildings

Searching for income that would allow the college to pay its debts and resume teaching students, Knoxville College struck a deal early this year with local developer Southeast Commercial. Southeast president and CEO Gary Smith has said he is close to arranging redevelopment projects that would turn most of the campus into a possible combination of senior or affordable housing, office space and a charter school.

However, Jane Redmond, who heads up the college’s small local management team, indicated at the hearing Friday that Smith has been working directly with members of the college’s board of trustees, but no one has been communicating with the college employees here in town. This seems to have led to ongoing confusion. For example, Redmond told Brace that different people representing the college had contacted two different architects to evaluate the condition of the chapel and library.

She asked the city to regard Bullock & Smith, which will start the work next week, as the college’s architect. But Gary Smith indicated in an email after the meeting that the college is using a different architect, Faris Eid with Design Innovation, to evaluate the library. Based on Eid’s conclusions, Smith wrote, Southeast Commercial will quote a price for completing the renovations.

Even if completed in three months—which Redmond expressed confidence could be achieved—these improvements won’t solve the problem of what to do about the science building. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation held a public meeting early in July about whether to add the science building to its list of the most polluted properties in the state, a proposal college officials and alumni argued against. Highly reactive hazardous chemicals were essentially abandoned in the building when science classes stopped, leading to a 2014 emergency cleanup by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that removed the most immediate dangers. TDEC officials say contamination, especially from mercury, still remains in the air and possibly soil.

TDEC contacted federal environmental regulators in April requesting help to secure the science building from vandals, according to EPA documents. TDEC reported that trespassers were removing items from the building to sell and “there is a high risk these are contaminated with mercury.” EPA agreed to return for more sampling, which was done June 27.

According to the EPA site report, these tests found mercury vapors at concentrations as high as 10.3 micrograms per cubic meter at floor level, and .5 micrograms per cubic meter at breathing height. (The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry indicates airborne mercury levels should not exceed 3 micrograms in a building.) Visible mercury of less than a teaspoon was observed in a hallway. EPA concluded that the mercury vapor levels meet the criteria for “a small-scale removal action.” But due to the small amount and isolated location of the contamination, EPA deemed action unnecessary as long as the building isn’t regularly occupied and its future use remains uncertain.

If, however, the college decides to either renovate or demolish the building, EPA recommended it consult cleanup or disposal contractors to make sure the waste is handled appropriately.

These conclusions appear to support Knoxville College claims that the remaining mercury contamination is minor, bolstering its argument that the building doesn’t need to be added to the state Superfund list. Such a move could stall efforts at redevelopment through the Southeast Commercial partnership. But on the other hand, it would provide the state more legal leverage to hand the bill to those who made the mess, rather that sticking taxpayers with it. Those responsible could include parties besides Knoxville College, which didn’t reimburse EPA for the 2014 cleanup and clearly doesn’t have the money to pay now.

TDEC officials have asked for help from anyone who studied or worked in the science building and has information about the source or disposal of its chemicals.

One commenter emailed TDEC with a tip about secret research at Knoxville College between the 1960s and 1980s. John Sibley reported that a 1973 Knoxville College graduate said the college conducted (possibly classified) research in partnership with the federal government, Union Carbide, and the University of Tennessee. The work, conducted in a room on the fourth floor of the science building, involved radioactive materials, Sibley wrote. “The metal doors to the room were locked at all times to shield the danger of any vapor, radiation, etc. that might escape,” the email stated.

Sibley argues that the federal government should have overseen removal and disposal of unsafe materials associated with the project, and should now be responsible for any cleanup costs. TDEC responded with a request for documentation that could shed light on this.

Although the public comment period ended July 21, TDEC has not made a decision about how to proceed, says Kim Schoetzow, TDEC communications officer. “We hope to have a discussion with college representatives in the near term,” she wrote in an email.

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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