How can black, inner-city neighborhoods get new schools if the Knox County school district keeps busing those students to the suburbs?
This conundrum is causing frustration among some East Knoxville parents and the Knoxville branch of the NAACP, as Knox County Schools seek feedback about rezoning most middle schools.
The school district is halfway through a series of six public meetings before it floats a specific proposal for where students will attend school once the new Gibbs and Hardin Valley middle schools open in 2018. In response to parental concerns, interim superintendent Buzz Thomas says the district may also consider changing some zones that aren’t directly affected by the new schools.
Gibbs Middle School has been particularly controversial because the school district’s own studies showed there was too little population growth to justify the school. Gibbs families, who are mostly white, have long objected to the 40-minute bus rides their children take to Holston Middle School.
However, since there aren’t enough students in Gibbs to fill the new school, black inner-city students closer to Holston will probably end up taking an equally long bus ride in the opposite direction, points out Knoxville NAACP president the Rev. John Anthony Butler.
The NAACP filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in November 2015, alleging Knox County was discriminating against black residents by choosing to build new schools only in white neighborhoods. The upshot, Butler says, is that inner-city black kids mostly attend either distant schools, or run-down ones.
The OCR announced at the end of 2015 its intent to investigate whether the district’s plan to build Gibbs Middle School would result in resegregation. If the Office of Civil Rights identifies a civil rights violation that the district refuses to resolve, the district could lose its federal education funding. (In fact, a similar OCR complaint, related to segregation in Knox County Schools, led to the closing of the old Gibbs Middle School in 1992. Those students were rezoned for Holston partly to create a more racially diverse student body.)
The current school-district policy, which was disregarded to build Gibbs, is that new schools be built only when existing schools overfill. By zoning so many inner-city students to schools on the outskirts, the school district ensures that there will never be a justification for building schools in inner-city neighborhoods, Butler says.
“It’s zoning that works against us ever having a new school,” he says. “You can call it racism. You can call it discrimination. I call it wrong.”
Thomas acknowledges, “That is a good point and something we want to address with this rezoning initiative…. I hear Rev. Butler and other parents’ concern that their children are being bused in places, to South Doyle Middle for example. And that is one of the things we are considering changing.”
Evelyn Gill, who represents the 1st District on Knox County Commission, agrees that the rezoning discussion has bared broader disparities, such as the age of schools in her district. That’s why she is working with other stakeholders like the Knox County Education Association, churches, and the NAACP to follow the KCS January meetings with another series of public meetings in February broadening the conversation to issues like transfers and unequal spending on new schools.
Gill says her constituents are especially concerned about how the middle school rezoning will affect where their child goes to high school, and even about how middle schools feed to high schools now. “This is an opportunity to realign that and look at how we can best deal with maintaining the integrity of neighborhoods centered around community schools,” she says.
That’s also a concern in West Knox County, where rezoning has fewer racial implications but has inspired more parents to protest.
Areas around Cedar Bluff have been rezoned multiple times in recent years and families are voicing frustration about kids being separated from friends as the high school feeder pattern constantly evolves. The majority of emails were from parents in the Harrison Springs subdivision requesting that their children be zoned for Hardin Valley rather than Karns. Farragut parents also wrote to protest any zoning plan that doesn’t feed the same kids from Farragut Primary through Farrragut High, some even complaining about the potential effect on their property values.
It’s clear, though, that rezoning is going to affect way more than who attends Gibbs or Hardin Valley.
Among students who might shift, according to the district, are those at Gresham, Halls, Holston, South Doyle, Vine, Whittle Springs, Bearden, Cedar Bluff, Karns, Farragut, and West Valley middle schools. Because of parent concerns about the effect on high school feeder patterns, Thomas says KCS might rework high school zoning at the same time.
Zoning changes might not only seek to avoid new problems but correct existing ones, Thomas says.
For example, some parents would like the district to stop zoning so many black students from the inner-city to middle schools that are not the closest to their homes, Butler says.
The Rev. Chris Battle and his wife Tomma Battle say their home is zoned for South Doyle Middle School, even though they are so near Vine that when they got a transfer, they were in the “parent responsibility zone”—close enough to walk. (Vine itself is located only a few blocks from the northern edge of the South Doyle attendance zone.)
Students who live a few blocks from Vine in The Vista at Summit Hill and Town View Towers public housing developments are zoned for South Doyle, while students across the street at Austin Homes attend Vine.
When the Battle kids were younger, they were zoned for Dogwood Elementary in South Knoxville, even though both Green and Sarah Moore Greene elementary schools are practically visible from their house.
“It’s ridiculous,” Tomma Battle says. “It would be different if you ever saw it going the other way,” with suburban white kids busing into schools with higher black populations.
In fact, Thomas and district operations chief Russ Oaks say Gibbs students were the only suburban ones zoned to come into the city. Thomas adds, “We have bused plenty of white suburban kids downtown for magnet schools,” such as the arts program at Austin East High and the Fulton Magnet School of Communication. But Thomas admits that the magnets are not very competitive programs and don’t attract “a high percentage of kids.”
Generally, racial balancing is achieved by busing black kids from East Knoxville to schools south of the river, and kids from Mechanicsville, Western Heights, Beaumont, and Lonsdale to the north–a situation Oaks says apparently began as an effort to address the previous segregation complaint 25 years ago. (Current administrators weren’t around then and say they don’t know details of the rationale behind specific zoning decisions.)
“Once these kids leave elementary school, they leave the community until they graduate,” says Butler, who is pastor of Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church in Mechanicsville. “That’s the most egregious thing: We’re just fulfilling their (racial) quota.”
Chris Battle, who is pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Avenue, says he thinks the district is reluctant to bus privileged white kids into downtown neighborhoods that are perceived as sketchy. “I think it’s bathed in racism and classism,” he says.
Civil Rights and Neighborhood Schools
The NAACP complaint hinges on the district violating its own policies to build Gibbs. The complaint states: “Schools have been replaced and new schools have been built only in communities with 95% white population.”
In an email to the school district, Louise Gorenflo, executive director of Tennessee Interfaith Power & Light, accused the Knox County school board of choosing one community’s well-being over another’s.
“What makes this crisis even more egregious is that we know that the harmed community has a legacy of unjust treatment,” she wrote. “For centuries, African-Americans in Knoxville have received a second-rate education…. The school board should know that its decision to arbitrarily build the new Gibbs Middle School is not water under the bridge but further contamination of the trust between African-Americans and Euro-Americans.”
Butler says the last school built in a black community was Sarah Moore Greene in 1973. School district officials said they could not verify the most recent school built within the boundaries of the current District 1. Oaks reiterates, “It has been our practice to build schools to accommodate growth, and we have not had the growth pressure in District 1 to cause us to build a school. But we have made significant investment in expansion and renovation and maintenance of existing facilities.”
KCS provided a summary list of capital investments in each county district between 2001 and 2015, showing District 1 receiving the second-highest level of investment (about $100,000 less than District 4, in the Bearden area) at close to $31.6 million.
Presumably, this is the kind of information the Office of Civil Rights has been evaluating. But its investigation has dragged on for more than a year, issuing no findings even as the district moved ahead with approval, siting, and construction of Gibbs Middle School.
U.S. Department of Education officials this week would not answer specific questions about the timeline, simply reiterating that the investigation is ongoing and that some investigations take longer than others.
Thomas says the school-district attorney was informed that the Office of Civil Rights staffer handling the complaint retired in November and the case does not seem to have been reassigned. Combining that with potential shakeups the wake of the new presidential administration, Thomas says he expects the case to move slowly.
Thomas adds, “Building schools does not elicit a response from OCR. Redrawing district lines might. I’m sure they will wait and see what our proposal is about how to redraw these zones.” After the board approves them, probably in late spring, Thomas says he expects the district will “resume our conversation” with the Office of Civil Rights.
But Thomas, who is meeting with Butler this week, says he’s not waiting. He says he wants the rezoning approach to address any disparities up front.
“I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to work out a resolution that all parties will be happy with,” he says. “I want the feds to be happy, but first and foremost, we want families in our community to be happy. We’re building the best school system in the South, and it will only be best if it serves all our families, regardless of race and economic background.”
What Butler wants is “neighborhood schools with state-of-the-art buildings, a 21st Century curriculum, and excellent teachers that look like our community.” He says the best decision would be for the school district to keep neighborhoods together and zone kids for the closest school. Any resulting overcrowding at inner-city schools would indicate that new schools should be built there, he says.
Parent Tammie Harvey, whose child attends Gresham Middle School, emailed the district to accuse its leaders of building schools only in wealthier neighborhoods. “All kids should have a community school,” she wrote. “I will not make my kids switch school when you do not care about the poorer students. You could’ve put a middle school in the Lonsdale area for those kids, [where] you took Beardsley and Rule. You did the same in the south. Improve the urban area before adding to the high dollar!”
There are many advantages to attending a neighborhood school, Butler says. Vine, for example, is a “community school” that provides safe early morning and after-school activities for students. Working families who live nearby but are zoned elsewhere miss out on those options.
Although families can transfer to a closer school, many are unaware of that option or how to pursue it, Gill notes. Those who do must transport their child to school themselves, a challenge that creates disparity for parents who rely on public transportation or work evening and overnight shifts, she says.
“The other issue all this zoning stuff creates is lack of parent involvement,” says Tomma Battle. Parents are less likely to be able to volunteer or attend meetings at a distant school, and their kids may be unable to participate in after-school activities, especially if their family doesn’t have a car.
Those students may also lose sleep and study time. Carley Ray, who works with inner-city youth on the East Side, told school officials at a December rezoning meeting that some students are waiting at bus stops by 6 a.m. and aren’t dropped off again until 12 hours later.
A former bus driver at the meeting said drivers busing kids long distances must speed to get students to school on time. Two children and a teachers’ aid died in a Knox County school bus wreck in December 2015, and six children died in a Chattanooga bus accident caused by a speeding bus driver last November, making long bus rides seem like a safety risk to many parents.
Butler says black kids are disproportionately disciplined at suburban schools. Chris Battle says they face racism from the teachers there. Two of Battle’s kids attended Bearden High School, where a teacher told them slavery was beneficial for black people, he says.
Gill says she is hopeful about the rezoning process because school officials are asking for community guidance up front. “We’re actually having a conversation prior to making a decision,” she says. “I think in times past, they would have just made the decision and presented it to the public.”
But Chris Battle expresses skepticism. “It’s almost like they don’t want our opinion, because we had to fight to get the public meeting at Austin East,” he says.
After the final three public meetings, the district will put together a specific rezoning proposal which will be presented to the public for more feedback in the spring.
Community meetings about middle school rezoning will be held at 6 p.m. on the following dates:
• Jan. 17 at Hardin Valley Elementary School (with a primary focus on Hardin Valley Middle)
• Jan. 24 at Holston Middle School (with a primary focus on Gibbs Middle)
• Jan. 31 at Vine Middle School (with a primary Focus on Gibbs Middle)
The meetings will be broadcast live on KCS-TV Comcast Channel 10 and streamed live at knoxschools.org/kcstv.
Comments may also be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com
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