No easy answers

City council, school board meet in joint session to see four options for handling MHS growth

By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

What to build and where to build it. That’s the issue facing Maryville City council and school board members when it comes to the future of Maryville High School. The process of getting answers will take another step when the two groups meet in joint session on Thursday, June 14.

There are essentially four proposals on the table. Maryville City Schools director Mike Dalton spoke with Blount Today recently about the ideas in preparation for the joint meeting.

Johnson Architects are to have the sketches and preliminary cost figures ready for the joint meeting, which will be at noon in the Ruby Tuesday room in the high school. The plans are:

  • Build a second high school on a new site
  • Build a new, larger Maryville High School on a new site
  • Expand the current site to hold as many as 2,200 students through renovation
  • Build a new middle school and take the current middle school as a second campus for Maryville High School that would hold 800 to 900 students and renovate the current high school to hold 1,700 students

Dalton said the proposal using the middle school is attractive. "We could handle growth rates through 2027," he said.

The two proposals that involve staying on the current high school site both call for building a new wing adjacent to the science building on the east side of campus (going toward Cunningham Street), but differ in how those renovations take shape. One would involve a two-story structure and a renovated middle school to use as a second campus. The other involves a three story structure and leaving the current middle school as it is.

Both plans would put classrooms on one side of the school and a new auditorium and gymnasium on the west side of the school. The current central office in both plans would be demolished and relocated to a new structure at the corner of Cunningham Street and West Broadway Avenue.

"Initial construction would be the new classroom wing," Dalton said. "That would have to be done before you did any demolition."

The timeline reaches three years into the future. Once a decision is made on which proposal to pursue, it could take several months to get architectural plans finalized. If the school board does any of these projects, Dalton said, it would probably take until fall of 2010 or 2011 before construction would be completed.

Who gets to decide? "The board of education will have to make the basic decision," Dalton said. "With the funding responsibility the city council has, there will be a lot of communication and negotiation between the people involved as we move forward."

Dalton said deciding which proposal is best to use won’t be easy. "There are a lot of issues that are making this decision difficult. Maryville has a tradition of everyone being on the same campus," he said. "There’s a lot of interest in letting young people have that experience."

Dalton said as the city’s population has grown, the teaching staff at the high school has worked hard to provide a high quality education even as more students fill the classrooms. "Our faculty has done a tremendous job of adjusting to the larger numbers," he said. "We have a tremendous staff, and they work hard to continue improvements."

Growth is one issue that could determine which proposal is chosen. Many wonder how big a high school could and should be. "As the city grows and the population grows, how big can you become without splitting into at least another high school?" Dalton asked.

And, he said, having a second high school in Maryville would create other challenges as well, such as an increase in operational costs.

There are also more emotional issues. "A growing concern is the loss of a sense of community that one school has allowed us to maintain over the years," said the director of schools.

Dalton said another issue in having two high schools is finding a location for a second high school that is accessible. "Another major situation is how the population would be divided," he said. "The Hardin Valley situation (in Knox County) is an example of the division that can occur when a population has to be divided into two schools."

(The Knox County School Board recently was criticized when several neighborhoods in Farragut were rezoned for the soon-to-be built Hardin Valley High School.)

The schools director said an additional challenge to building a second high school is not just how accessible the location is but where exactly the location is within the city. "Growth in the city can occur more in one direction than it does in another," he said. "At this point, it’s difficult to know which direction to go. At this point there are still a lot of questions."

While all the alternatives have their strengths, Dalton said he couldn’t advise the school board on which way to go at this point. "I can’t make a recommendation on a solution until I have a better idea of how many students we’re going to need to serve," he said.

The meeting on June 14 will give board members and city council members a chance to see the different proposals and learn the costs of each one. A public hearing will be scheduled at a later time to hear from residents about the proposals.

Choosing a principal

Dalton also shared his thoughts on the ongoing process to replace retiring Maryville High School principal Ken Jarnagin. The schools director has evaluated 15 individuals and group interviews were scheduled for this week to allow school administrators and staff the chance to speak with candidates before he makes a final decision, he said.

Dalton said he has hired on average one principal a year the past 10 years. "It’s a good process because different people are involved, and you get to see other people’s perceptions," he said. "Sometimes you find your first perception wasn’t accurate."

The schools director said his goal is to hire the best person he can find to be principal at Maryville High School. "If you get that going for you, life’s good," he said. "Selection of principals is the most important thing I do, no doubt."

With all the changes coming up in the city schools, Dalton also addressed the issue of how long he would like to remain as director of schools. Dalton said has talked about retirement for a couple of years but hasn’t made a decision.

"I’m going to delay making a decision. I’m retirement age. It comes up in conversation but I’m not ready to make a decision," he said. "I started teaching in 1968, that’s 39 years. I’m really at a point where the deciding factor about retirement is whether or not I feel I am as effective as I need to be," he said.

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