Knox Co. School Board postpones vote on budget to cut magnet, Project GRAD funding

# # State

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The Knox County School Board met Wednesday, April 11, and postponed a vote on a controversial budget for the 2019 year that includes eliminating spending on all magnet schools in the district, cutting magnet programs from Green Magnet and Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy, and cutting the Project GRAD program completely.

The board voted to move the meeting to April 30 after the postponement Wednesday.

The Wednesday meeting followed a Monday work session in which hundreds of community members turned out to protest the proposed cuts, staging demonstrations with signs that featured messages like, "Embrace / Educate / Encourage." So many people turned out for the meeting that after all seats were filled in the Main Assembly Room of the City-County Building, crowds amassed outside to share their voices.

The proposed $483.3 million 2019 budget is a 2.5 percent increase from 2018's approved budget, and a recommendation from Superintendent Bob Thomas on the proposed budget noted a $3.2 million spending overage compared to predicted revenue for the school system.

To reduce that excess spending, Superintendent Thomas proposed cutting nearly $2 million through eliminating annual allocations to all magnet schools; suspending magnet-related activities at Sarah Moore Greene and Green Magnet academies; and cutting the just more than $1 million allocated for the current Project GRAD program, which was established to help disadvantaged Knox County students get into and gain financial assistance for college.

Additional position cuts would make up the rest of the $500,000 needed to reduce spending, Superintendent Thomas said in a memo recommending passage of the proposed budget.

Many protesting at Monday and Wednesday's meetings told Local 8 News they saw the cuts as a direct hit on their community.

"They need not neglect the inner-city and the African-American community,"
Reverend Harold Middlebrook said Monday.
"Project GRAD and the magnet school has been a very positive influence, and the other thing that I worry about with them trying to eliminate the magnet programs is that we are moving to resegregate our school system."

Gov. Bill Haslam spoke up on the subject on Thursday at a Morristown event, saying that he thinks Project GRAD is extremely important. He added that his opinion might be a little biased.

"I'll take off my governor's hat and talk as a former mayor and a former project GRAD chairperson,"
Gov. Haslam said.
"It's made a difference in our inner city schools, particularly Fulton and Austin-East, increasing their graduation rates and increasing the number of kids who are prepared for college."

Knox County School Board Chair Patti Bounds said two new middle schools, Gibbs and Hardin Valley, cost the county roughly $2 million each to operate and staff. Superintendent Thomas' memo broke down that spending, detailing that both schools would cost roughly $4.695 million to open.

Bounds also added increased health insurance premiums have added to the tight budget.

She also argued newer programs like the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Achieves have made Project GRAD a smaller need. An internal review from the KCS Research, Evaluation and Assessment Department found that parts of the magnet programs and Project GRAD had not significantly impacted student achievement, and magnet schools have seen limited parent demand.

A representative from the Great Schools Partnership and Project GRAD released the following statement after the announcement to postpone the vote Wednesday:

"The Great Schools Partnership and Project GRAD thank the Knox County School Board for delaying its vote tonight on the FY 2018 budget to allow time for the district to explore additional funding possibilities. We’re confident in the school board’s commitment to meeting the needs of ALL students, including the specific needs of children in Knox County’s most vulnerable communities.

Our hope is that board members will take this time to learn more about the positive results of the Project GRAD program and include full funding for Project GRAD when they return to vote on April 30."