Hugh Nystrom says he expects to preside over a November vote on the proposition to move Knox County Schools’ central office out of the Andrew Johnson building and into six floors of TVA’s vacant East Tower. Commission Chair Nystrom is a strong supporter of the long-discussed transaction, which will free up the historic hotel building – Knoxville’s first “skyscraper” – for private development and allow the county to enter into a “sweetheart” lease agreement with TVA that supporters say will save from $29 to $70 million, mostly because of urgent infrastructure needs at the AJ, which the county will unload for $6 million to a Nashville developer.
But there’s a lot of persuading that must be done.
First will come a vote by the school board, which is giving decidedly mixed signals about its inclinations. At last month’s commission meeting, the normally affable Superintendent Bob Thomas made clear his misgivings about the move, saying that nobody had asked him whether moving to the tower would better serve the needs of the school system.
Undaunted, Mayor Glenn Jacobs is forging ahead. Members of his administration have invited school board and commission members to take private tours of the tower, and Jacobs will lead a media tour of the East Tower first thing Monday morning (10/28). His press release included special instructions for reporters who will be attending:
“For security reasons, any member of the media wishing to be a part of the tour must submit their names to Rob Link via email (email@example.com) no later than 2 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 25. Participants should meet in the TVA West Tower Plaza Lobby at 8:45 a.m. to obtain the required security credentials and screening. A valid government-issued ID (such as a driver license) is required.”
Therein lies the rub. One of them, anyhow.
Extreme security measures could add a layer of intimidation to the natural apprehension parents feel when they go downtown to talk to their school administrators. Even elected officials find it daunting to get in the door.
County Commissioner Michele Carringer brought her 6-year-old granddaughter, Emma Grace Lewallen, when she visited the tower on Sept. 24, along with school board members Jennifer Owen and Patti Bounds. Carringer said she ran into an unexpected problem:
“At first, I didn’t know whether they were even going to let Emma Grace in,” she said. “They had to have her full name and birth date and I had to give them my driver license and my home address. We had to go through X-ray machines and scanners – to tour an empty building. I felt harassed and was about to say ‘I think I’ll just leave.’
“Emma Grace looked up and me and said, ‘Nanaw, this is worse than flying.’”
Carringer hung in for the tour, but left unimpressed.
“I just thought it was over the top for everybody to have had to go through all that for an empty building that was nasty and full of construction debris. Summer Place (an adjacent business also included in the deal) is worse.”
Owen has made her opinion known (it’s not good), and Bounds was similarly unimpressed.
“It reminded me of the days of Dr. McIntyre’s dog-and-pony shows. There wasn’t really anything to see, but they’re real proud of their refurbished bathrooms. We kept being invited to look at the bathrooms. I just ignored (the invitation) and walked on. I told them my vote would not be contingent on the bathrooms. You go to the bathrooms for one purpose only, and if that’s what you’re using to sell us the TVA Tower, I’m not persuaded.”
Commissioners Evelyn Gill, Justin Biggs, Carson Dailey and Richie Beeler visited the tower and are skeptical, as well.
“It’s not welcoming,” said Beeler, who doesn’t like hearing that school security officers won’t be allowed to carry weapons inside the central office building.
Biggs said it took an unreasonable amount of time for him to be approved by security, and he worries that parents won’t have time to get their business done. He said he is getting tired of waiting to see the contract and has concerns about school board members (and Thomas) feeling coerced.
“There’s so much gray area. I’ve never even seen the contract. How do they expect me to make an educated vote when I’ve never seen a contract? I would like some time to digest the entire situation. I do think the schools’ administration deserves a nice place to go, and we need to realize that county commission has a good relationship with the school board. That’s not always been the case.”
He’d like to see a special session called to allow public discussion.
Gill, who was “wanded” by security because she refused to remove an expensive watch, said she’s been asking for full briefings on the TVA deal since former Mayor Tim Burchett introduced the plan some two years ago. She also wants more public input.
“Are we saying that the cost equivalent is worth what we’re going to spend on it? We educate 66,000 students with 8,000 staff. We need to hear what the public has to say.”
And for some, there’s a deep-seated reluctance to sell off county-owned property in exchange for a lease.
“The price sounds great,” Beeler said. “But here’s the thing – we own the AJ and the Kessel parking garage (behind the AJ), debt free. Fifteen years from now, all we’ll have is an easement or a lease from TVA. I want this to be a good deal for everybody, but when I look at it, the person getting the best deal is whoever is buying the AJ. We want to encourage development downtown, but my goodness, downtown is thriving. And if the school system doesn’t want to go, I’m not going to make them go.”
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. She writes Knox Scene each Friday. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.