The first thing you have to understand about the Fort Craig controversy is that Fort Craig isn’t bricks and mortar. It isn’t a quaint neighborhood school that everyone’s grandmother then mother attended. Fort Craig, in its current configuration is only 16 years old, a mere toddler in school years.
To the parents and teachers, what Fort Craig is is a concept. A different school calendar, a different pace, different attitudes about learning styles with classroom sizes and resources to indulge the pace and attitudes. Most Fort Craig parents you talk to say the school is “a godsend for my child,” and you hear it across the board, whether the child is “gifted” or “challenged.”
And now “they” want to close it. Anytime changes are proposed to a school, emotions always run high -- whether it is building a brand new high school or deciding who gets rezoned to relieve overcrowding at a middle school. The emotions over the Fort Craig closing have run especially high for several reasons. First, parents say the decision has “come too quickly.” Second, parents say other options have not been studied completely. And third, the totally emotional, gut-level belief that “they never liked us anyway” and money is a convenient scapegoat to close the school.
Blount Today wanted to know how this all unfolded and whether any of those reasons were based on anything other than emotion and sadness at losing something that is loved. So we asked the questions, and everyone we talked to answered.
Maryville City School Director Stephanie Thompson doesn’t hesitate nor stumble when the whispered allegation comes to her in the form of a straight question. Is the current budget crisis a convenient way to close a school that you don’t think fits in the Maryville school system?
“That school has had great success, and I don’t think we would be having these conversations at all or even considering closing Fort Craig, if we were not in the economic situation we’re in,” Thompson said. “I’m sorry to see it have to close if the board decides it has to happen. As far as issues or things they think I don’t like about the school, if that were the case, I could have very easily fixed them.”
How it all started
It all started with a master plan, enrollment projections that didn’t happen and a serious budget crisis. Thompson said when Maryville City Manager Greg McClain came on board shortly before she did three years ago, he began delving into the city’s finances and long-range projections. The school system had started a master planning process in 2004. “When Greg got on board and started looking at what our master plan was, expectation was that we needed to do something with the high school, and it could cost up to $50 million or $60 million. There was a need for an intermediate school. There were future needs for renovations at the middle school and the high school,” she said.
“Greg very quickly brought us up to speed that there wasn’t going to be money for all that. When we started the master planning, we didn’t know that on the front end.”
Building a new intermediate school, which became Coulter Grove, was part of that master plan. Thompson said the decision to build Coulter Grove was based on projections from 2007, when it was determined that space would be needed in the elementary and intermediate levels.
Thompson said the decision was made to go ahead and build Coulter Grove Intermediate School. “We started that with money we had in our building fund with the knowledge the city wasn’t going to have the money to open it, and that they had put in a 26-cent tax increase specifically for the purpose of getting a $25 million bond. That is when the economy tanked,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that in 2007, there were three grade levels in a row of 400, 420 and 440 students. “Those kids, at that time, were in first, second and third grades. Based on those really large classes, we thought the growth would continue. It didn’t happen that way. Those large classes are in fourth, fifth and sixth grades now,” she said. “We adjusted because the classes behind them have been more normal with 360, 370 students. In adjusting those projects, the need in our elementary schools was not as severe, but we learned we will need space in the intermediate school.”
In the fall of 2008, the work was halted and Coulter Grove mothballed because the bond market was so bad. “The interest rate was so high it would’ve been foolish, so we did some site prep and mothballed what we had,” Thompson said.
At this point in 2009, the system got the opportunity to apply for a federal recovery bond through the state.
Thompson said the city council was fearful the school system wouldn’t have money to open the school once it was built. “We met with them and said, ‘Here is an opportunity to apply for a bond issue that will save taxpayers millions of dollars. It is a very low interest rate, the payout is a shorter period with 17 years rather than 30 years.’ The city council agreed, and said they would work with us to do what was needed to open the school. In the back of our minds we are thinking, ‘how are we going to open that school if city council is not willing to raise taxes?’ You have to find money.”
An overcrowded MHS
And the problem with Maryville High School just kept growing. “Since that time, we’ve been working on solutions at Maryville High School and what we can do at Maryville High School to relieve overcrowding,” Thompson said.
Many options were considered, with five different plans presented to the parents and the public, ranging from a brand new high school, a second high school, buying land behind the school and expanding and even putting temporary building all over campus.
Thompson said the system did a feasibility study with Alcoa High School and went through a year of visiting schools in Ohio and Alabama, looking to create a joint STEM school that would focus on science and technology. That proposal was dropped when the state didn’t fund it with federal Race to the Top funds.
The high school has been overcrowded for at least six years now, Thompson said. The school administrators increased their dual enrollment courses to get students off campus. There are 15 traveling teachers every period. Art classes meet in the commons, classes regularly meet in the teacher dining area, and there aren’t enough computer labs, she said.
“That is where we are at the school, and it has been like that for years. It is going to get worse when the large classes start coming through,” she said.
The schools director said the board considered putting portables at the high school. “They didn’t really want to have a bunch of portables sitting in the parking lot at the school. That option wasn’t very feasible,” she said.
Thompson said that six months of looking at options for dealing with overcrowding at the high school turned into a year and a half. “That put us at last summer, knowing we had to do something. Then, around early fall, we started talking about how we were not going to be able to expand at Maryville High School, so we started looking at enrollment projections, doing research and studying grade configurations, looking at the pros and cons of all these options and the possibilities. We could see we weren’t going to have opportunity for expanding at Maryville High School,” she said.
Shaking up the grades
The reality of the problem with Maryville High School and the stabilization of growth at the elementary school level led to the proposal to change the grade configurations, moving 9th grade out of the high school and combining 4th through 7th grades. If Coulter Grove could open, the grade configuration would work, Thompson said.
The school’s director said she and others on the Leadership Team -- which is made up of the director of schools, assistant director of schools, Jan Click and the seven school principals in Maryville City Schools -- realized the other dilemma was finding money to open Coulter Grove. “What happens if we don’t have the money to open Coulter Grove? How can you do the reconfiguration without Coulter Grove opening?” she said “We knew we had to have Coulter Grove open for the new configuration to work to move the seventh grade to the intermediate school and take the ninth grade out of high school.”
The Leadership Team -- and Thompson said they quickly drew facilities director Richard Harbison into that team -- had a planning meeting in October of 2010, and they started talking about funding and space.
“It quickly became apparent our other elementary schools could absorb students from Fort Craig,” she said. “And when we started putting numbers down as to what it would cost to open Coulter Grove as a fourth through seventh grade configuration and then close Fort Craig for four or five years, the difference in cost was $800,000 a year,” she said. “That is when that idea developed, and we started looking at it.”
Thompson said at that point, the city hadn’t increased their contribution to the schools in three years, but yet expenses continued to grow. “This current year, just retirement for teachers and fulltime staff was over $500,000, not counting health insurance and education index raises,” she said. “You don’t have a choice about paying that - that is something we get hit with every other year. With income being where it was, we really struggled.”
For those who say no other cuts were made and closing Fort Craig was a convenient “fix,” Thompson said $1.7 million in “Tier One” reductions were found through retirement of 24 employees, changing programs, reducing staff development, reducing hours for bookkeeping, changing how special education personnel’s hours are allocated and eliminating the employer portion of dental insurance. On “Tier Two,” another $540,000 was found by freezing steps on local salary scales and by eliminating two additional positions.
Thompson said the difficult aspect of budgets is the state doesn’t let systems know until spring how much they are sending. “That is the thing about doing budgets for school systems,” she said. “We don’t have good data until April.”
‘Happening too fast’
Thompson said the Leadership Team began working on estimates and numbers earnestly in October of 2010, looking specifically at how to open Coulter Grove and change the grade configurations.
“In November I started talking to individual school board members about grade configurations and showing what we were thinking about,” she said. “We presented that information and started to talk about opening Coulter Grove in 2012 and issues we saw remaining. This is probably the most involved the board has been in the budget process.”
Board chair Christi Sayles said she remembered talking to Thompson briefly about the proposal before the board went to Nashville for the Tennessee School Board Association meeting. “That is when she lightly presented it to me,” Sayles said. “I thought, ‘Wow, really?’ It was almost an acceptance that the financial situation had gotten where it is.”
Board vice chair Doug Jenkins remembered they had a public meeting about solutions and ideas and reconfiguration was thrown out, but Fort Craig wasn’t discussed. “The next step was that we evaluated how much reconfiguration would cost and realized the cost was over $1 million (which included opening Coulter Grove) and that is when I remember Fort Craig coming into play,” Jenkins said.
Board secretary Denny Garner said Thompson came to the board members after a Leadership Team meeting to gauge their opinions. “The way Stephanie does business, after they meet with the Leadership Team, is they have a plan of action, and she calls us in one at a time, feels us out and gets our opinion on the direction she is headed,” he said. “This happened sometime late in the fall.”
Board member Charles West remembered first hearing the proposal in November. “It took me back because it was that one hadn’t crossed my mind,” he said.
Board member Bethany Pope, who became a school board member in November, said she first heard the idea before she was sworn onto the board. “I was invited to the TSBA meeting with them (in Nashville) because I was an incoming school board member and that is when I first heard about it,” she said.
Why Fort Craig?
If Fort Craig is such an innovative school, as many parents and Fort Craig teachers believe, why was the decision proposed to shut it rather than another school?
“The main reason is it is a smaller school,” said Thompson. “They have 280 students.” The schools director said that in order to provide equal service, a school of 280 students costs more. “When you have a school with 280 students as opposed to 550 students, it naturally cost more money to operate,” she said. “Fort Craig is at their programming capacity, within a few students. Based on Fort Craig’s programming capability, 290 is their limit. In order to be feasible economically, our studies show that elementary schools today need to have the capability of having 500 to 550 students.”
The schools director said there are 22 classrooms at Fort Craig and 15 of those are actually grade classrooms. The other rooms are for music and art and special education and intervention.
“You could theoretically, if you eliminate all other programs and put them on carts, you could get 400 students in Fort Craig,” she said. “It has had that many before, when it was the other Fort Craig and had K through 5. But the teacher/pupil classroom ratio was higher then.”
Fort Craig principal Dr. Ramona Best said currently they average 19 students per class in grades kindergarten through third grade, and on average there are 18 students in each fourth grade class.
“Sometimes we’ll have parents who pull a child out at fourth grade because their siblings will be on the other calendar, and they’ll make that choice to pull that last student out so they won’t be on two different calendars,” Best said. “We also try to minimize transitions. It doesn’t make sense to come to Fort Craig for one year. We know transitions aren’t desirable.”
Thompson said with the size of the building and the number of students in Fort Craig, it is simply a smaller school that costs more to operate.
“We initially made a plan knowing we would need elementary space in five or six years, so we would love to be able to expand Fort Craig to be about the same size as other elementary schools with 500 to 550 students. That way, as far as per pupil costs, it is more cost effective,” she said.
The schools director said that when all is said and done, cost is the driving factor in proposing to close Fort Craig. If Fort Craig remains open, the schools face a $1.5 million cost in getting Coulter Grove open. By closing Fort Craig, that amount is reduced to roughly $795,000. “It’s cost,” said Thompson. “When you look at an $800,000 difference, that is a pretty substantial amount of money, especially knowing our city is struggling, and our citizens don’t want to raise taxes any more than they have to. That’s the dilemma we find ourselves in,” she said.
And the school board says…
When asked if the school board members are looking at other alternatives, some said there were a variety of measures on the table, and others said this was the best choice.
“We have looked at a laundry list of other alternatives,” Sayles said. “I don’t think you would pursue this as an option if you hadn’t gone through that process.”
Sayles said they looked at not opening Coulter Grove. “Unfortunately that still leaves us with the remainder of the grades still overcrowded. We looked at moving the ninth grade to Coulter Grove. We looked at putting the ninth grade at Fort Craig. We looked at putting them at BiLo or doing something at the Blount County Children’s Home,” she said. “We looked all kinds of space utilization and costs associated with that to consider what we could to address the high school overcrowding. When it comes down to it, what we have to do is open Coulter Grove. That is the long-term solution.”
Jenkins said he has had many conversations with residents. “We’re looking at all facets of the budget. I’ve been really involved in the budget process, and I’m on the benefit committee,” he said. “We’ve had to cut benefits and raise deductibles. I feel we’re evaluating all options and evaluating many scenarios.”
Garner said at present closing Fort Craig temporarily and reconfiguring grades is the best plan they’ve got. “If anybody has a plan that exceeds ours and can perform better and meet the needs of our 5,000-plus students and the needs of our community, stakeholders and taxpayers, let us know,” Garner said.
Garner said they have looked at varying different grade structures in different buildings and at all kinds of options as far as cutting budgets. “We went line-item by line-item to make sure we don’t have waste,” he said. “We’ve cut ourselves plum to the bone and this is about the only option we have left to accomplish everything we have to accomplish.”
West said they are still hearing different alternatives. “From Day 1, we’ve put every one of the alternatives on the table,” he said.
Pope said one option was to move the ninth grade academy to Coulter Grove but she said she isn’t aware of any other options being discussed apart from closing Fort Craig. “That is my big hang-up with the budget. I don’t feel I can make an educated decision on whether to close Fort Craig. I haven’t seen where we are even going to find $1.5 million to open Coulter Grove if we do not close Fort Craig, and the $800,000 if we do close Fort Craig,” she said. “I feel I’ve not seen where we’re going to make the cuts, and how we can afford to open a new school at this juncture.”
Mike Winstead, assistant director of schools, said closing Fort Craig reduces the number of new people who have to be hired at the new school. “We have a principal at Fort Craig. We could move that principal position to Coulter Grove. All the teachers would be moved to other positions in the school system, and we wouldn’t be adding as many positions,” he said. “We wouldn’t have to hire as many new people.”
When asked if all tenured teachers are guaranteed teaching positions, Thompson said the system does not negotiate. “But we know what good teachers we have in our school system and at Fort Craig, and we want to take care of our teachers,” she said. “We are going to do everything we can to move our teachers who are tenured hopefully to somewhere they want to be.”
Thompson said when parents ask why the decision needs to be made now, she said that these kinds of changes take time to do thoughtfully. “With major changes such as grade re-configurations, we have look to at every staff member and see what they are qualified to do and make a whole plan,” she said. “We have to be very thoughtful about where to place staff members. We want them be happy, be comfortable, and we want them to achieve and do the best they can for all students.”
Thompson said she expects the school board to approve the new grade configuration -- which would mean two fourth-through-seventh grade curriculums at Coulter Grove and Maryville Intermediate at the Feb. 22 board meeting. “We have a lot of planning to do in the next year and half before Coulter Grove opens,” she said. “We still have $800,000 to find, even if Fort Craig closes.”
The Fort Craig concept
Some Fort Craig parents are questioning the school system’s wisdom in closing what they consider to be an innovative program that enhances the reputation of the Maryville City Schools.
Chris LeGeaux, a Fort Craig parent, said there is no denying the Maryville School System provides one of the best educations available in the state but he doesn’t believe every option has been explored. “Obviously there are many different directions a school system can go,” he said. “I don’t think the budget process has been exhausted.”
LeGeaux said the administration is telling the parents to trust them to take care of their children, even if it is in other schools.
“I caution everyone that when government says, ‘trust us,’ be extra wary,” he said. “Questioning the government or elected officials is in no way saying you don’t believe them, but questioning them can certainly give you confidence in their decisions.”
Mary Bogert, a Fort Craig parent, said she is not confident that all options have been explored.
“It is funny, when I started down this journey, I was more partial to the school board’s position because I believed it was a funding issue,” said Bogert. “I couldn’t believe our city wasn’t going to fund the difference. The more I met with people -- business leaders and city officials -- I started to question my position. I’m not confident, and I feel I should be. I feel, as a taxpayer, the reason I’m uncomfortable is there doesn’t seem to be a collaborative effect. The attitude is, ‘this is the way it is going to be.’ We can go to the forums and speak, but no one is going to answer you. I don’t see how that is involving the community.”
Bogert said she doesn’t think this is a budgetary issue. “To close a school that has performed so well for so many over the years, and one that it took so much effort and energy to create, over a $750,000 deficit, doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I know it is a tough economy. I appreciate that. If we were talking about a $3 million or $4 million deficit, but $750,000? I don’t believe that.”
Bogert said she hasn’t seen a line-by-line breakdown of the proposal. “We see the larger dollar amount, but not line-by-line what it takes to get to that number. I’m not convinced every option has been explored,” she said. “I think that the Fort Craig concept should be taken and placed elsewhere in the school system. Make Coulter Grove a Fort Craig. Fort Craig is not a building but a program.”
LeGeaux said besides solving the eminent threat to Fort Craig, the bigger challenge is restoring relationships in the aftermath of the crisis. “Central office, parents and all faculty and staff are working toward improving our relationships and that is being worked on by everyone, regardless of how this vote turns out,” he said.
“This cloud that is hanging over us is in part because Fort Craig is burdened by that bad history,” LeGeaux said. “Central office acknowledges that and is working on it.”
LeGeaux said Fort Craig is similar to magnet schools in its programming and choice to go there, and it also shares common drawbacks of a magnet school.
“Any magnet school anywhere has the same relationship issues with other schools. It is a very common problem. It is not jealousy, it is competition, and it is tension. It is many different things, and we have those typical things to deal with.”
LeGeaux said any school closing is emotional. “Low performing schools close. We bring our kids to school, they do their homework, and they are successful, and we’re still closing,” he said. “It is really tough for everybody, especially when you try to do everything to be successful, and it does succeed. That makes it that much tougher.”
A step back?
Thompson said that in the 16 years since the Fort Craig concept has been around, Maryville schools have become more alike than different.
“I think our elementary schools are more alike than different, including Fort Craig, especially in the past five years,” Thompson said. “Our teachers have collaborated across the system.”
Thompson said teachers in all the elementary schools have training in Quantum Learning, textbook software and they all have Promethean boards. “We have all those resources and tools in all our schools,” she said.
Thompson said she and those in the school system want parents to understand they are going to care for their children. “The teachers are trained professionals and very caring and love children, and they will meet the needs of the children in the classroom,” she said. “That is where the most important thing going on is -- between the teacher and children. That is not changing at all. I feel very confident our teachers and other schools will take care of every child.”
Jenkins said he doesn’t think closing Fort Craig is taking a step back for the school system. “Maryville people always step up,” he said. “This going to be a challenge and an opportunity, whatever we decide. We’ll make it work and work well, and it won’t deprive students. We’ll do what’s best for the kids.”
West said if the quality of education at other elementary schools was worse, the system would be taking a step back. “But since all four elementary schools are strong, I don’t believe we are taking a step back,” he said.
Pope has a different perspective. “Yes, I think all the elementary schools are great schools, but they are all different, and not one is better than the other,” she said. “I hate to see a year around program go away. That is what other countries are doing, and they are ahead of us. I definitely think we’re going backward instead of forward. Again, I understand the budget is tight, and you have to make cuts when a budget is tight, but I don’t know that this is the right avenue.”
Garner said he was on the school board 15 years ago when Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning opened. “I was a founding member and was very supportive of it. They’ve performed average to the rest of our elementary schools and are not any different than the rest,” he said.
For her part, Best said the staff at Fort Craig are professionals who are looking forward to the next school year, even if it is their last one at Fort Craig. “If the board decides to close us, we still have to educate these children for another year. We really want, regardless of that, to have a great year next year,” she said. “The way we view it, we are here to educate the children we’ve got, and we’ll do that again next year as well. If we can move forward and have a great year next year, and if they close us in Spring of 2012, we’ll be able to transition our faculty and students in a positive way.”