Citizens rally to support magnet schools, GRAD

Sandra ClarkFeature

Knoxville City Council member Marshall Stair has vigorously supported funding for urban schools during the current budget discussion. He attended Monday’s school board workshop, posting on social media:

“One of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed in the public life of Knoxville, the large assembly room is AT CAPACITY and people are standing outside the windows peacefully demanding the curtains be opened so the decision-makers can at least see their opposition to cuts to our most vulnerable students. Amazing.”

Citizens filled the large assembly room and its balcony; they streamed into the small assembly room and the hallway outside both rooms. Parents, many with small children, stood outside the City County Building as Stair pointed out.

Eighty people signed up to speak, and the school board got an earful from Ronni Chandler, executive director of Project GRAD. Here are excerpts from her remarks:

“It is not so that GRAD is ineffective. It is not so that magnet programs in the urban schools are ineffective. …

“This is about equity in Knoxville.  Equity and equality are not the same thing. Equity means giving everyone what he or she needs to access opportunity.

“There is a growing divide between the haves and the have nots. … These young people begin to develop a survival mindset instead of a growth mindset.

“Removing support that provides safety, hope and opportunity is not the way to go.

“A person without hope does not dream. A person without hope feels they have nothing to lose and they choose the wrong way.

“These precious young people need more, not less.”

Knox County Schools faces a $3 million shortfall with projected new revenue of $12.1 million and projected new expenses of $15.1 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The school board discussed Superintendent Bob Thomas’ proposed budget on Monday and is scheduled to vote on it Wednesday (4/11). Monday’s meeting ran for almost eight hours, in part because board members talked for two hours before starting public forum.

Some parents sent their kids home with grandma while they stayed to talk. When someone asked questions of board members, the law director quickly advised that board policy prohibits interaction between board members and speakers. Everybody was on edge.

Thomas wants to eliminate magnet programs at Green and Sarah Moore Greene, along with non-renewing Project GRAD, a program that provides scholarships, social workers and tutors to Austin-East and Fulton high schools and associated feeders. Thomas said KCS provides about half the funding for GRAD with the balance coming from private sources.

Not one of Monday’s speakers endorsed the superintendent’s budget. Current students and recent grads of Fulton and Austin-East supported GRAD. Parents and teachers spoke against cuts to the magnet programs.

Thomas said GRAD and the magnets have not improved test scores in the “most at-risk” schools. But others argued that the programs were not designed to enhance test scores.

The school board can OK Thomas’s budget, tweak and pass it, or kick it down the road until the county gets information about the state’s contribution. Here’s betting that Project GRAD will stay – at least in the high schools.

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