Waiting by the phone to hear from OCR

Sandra ClarkFeature, Gossip and Lies

What’s the status of the complaint filed three years ago with the Office for Civil Rights? You remember – the complaint said construction of two middle schools on the far edges of Knox County would re-segregate the system and diminish the offerings at Holston.

Town Hall East invited Dr. John A. Butler to a recent meeting to discuss the complaint he filed as president of the local NAACP regarding equity in Knox County Schools.

Holston principal Katie Lutton said her school has enrolled about 555 children in grades 6-7-8. But the recently renovated, former Holston High School has a capacity of 1,200 and had more than 900 kids enrolled last year. Gibbs Middle opened with about 500 students, she said.

The NAACP filed the complaint on Nov. 6, 2015. OCR opened a file and requested information in December. That correspondence is archived here.

Butler confirmed on Oct. 15 that he’s not heard anything further from the OCR. The complaint was filed to stop construction. But now, three years later, the school is built and opened. Even if OCR finds against Knox County Schools, what’s the remedy?

And the dilemma gets denser.

Butler wants yet another middle school on the West side of town, where students from Lonsdale, Beaumont and Christenberry elementary schools are shuttled off to Bearden or Northwest middle schools. Some may even land at Vine or Whittle Springs. But there is no middle school close by.

The ask

“We want the same thing that every other community wants: excellent teachers and administrators, a 21st Century curriculum and state-of-the-art buildings,” Butler said. He pointed out that the recent budget short-fall that almost eliminated inner-city programs like Project Grad and magnet schools was “roughly equivalent to the operational costs of Gibbs and Hardin Valley middle schools.” And the school system “looked in one district, one community for cuts.”

That funding crisis was resolved, but there’s no guarantee it won’t return this year.

Butler said kids should go to the school closest to their home. “We want every community to have good, healthy community schools.”

Indya Kincannon, a former school board chair and current candidate for Knoxville mayor, asked Butler his thoughts on magnet schools and segregation by economics (rather than race).

“Magnets were used to attract white kids to black schools, but I’m not sure they have worked,” he said, stressing that he was speaking for himself only. He said suburban schools quickly obtained the science labs or technology that had set the magnets apart.

Audience member James Bussell challenged Butler: “Austin-East is down to 600 kids. It’s time to close it.” Bussell believes a high school should have 1,000 students to offer adequate curriculum.

Butler disagreed. “I’m not saying because of the numbers we should close the school. I’m not opposed to having a high school with fewer than 1,000 students. I just want it to be good and healthy.”

“So what,” someone asked, “is the status of the OCR complaint?”

“It is dead,” said Michael Covington from the audience.

Butler did not smile. “I won’t say I disagree with you, but I don’t agree with you,” he told Covington.

  • Town Hall East is headed by president David Lee, assisted by VP Sharon Davis, secretary Kim Raia, treasurer Rachel Honeycutt and board members Michael Aktalay, Sam McKenzie, Kim Trent, Clarita Buffaloe, Michael Moore, Clint Waddell, Sandra Korbelik, Mira Nash and Millie Ward. Doug Toppenberg is the past president.
  • Nick Della Volpe joked that former president Shirley Nash-Pitts would frequently call for police enforcement of speeding in Holston Hills. “And then she would get a ticket!”

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