This article ran in the Roane County News on July 5, 2017
This story takes place in September 2029. It relives the events in 2017 when the Roane county school board voted to build a consolidated high school that combined the cities of Rockwood, Kingston and Harriman into a single school and left Midway and Oliver Springs as small high schools. That decision would come to haunt the school board and Roane County for the next 40 years.
Roane County, Friday, September 28, 2029
Roane County Executive Dale Skidmore was leaving the 10th annual Battle of Roane county football game between Roane East High School and Roane West High School when he passed a plaque at the stadium that had the names of the members of the 2017 Roane County Board of Education members and the 2017 County Commissioners. He gave a silent moment of respect to both bodies as he recalled the momentous and courageous decision they made when they voted to build two new high schools for the county, replacing the aging five high schools that were an average of 60 years old. The decision played an important role in upgrading the educational system in the county and made Roane county the envy of schools in the state because of their close proximity and working relationship with Roane State Community College
There was more. Mr. Skidmore remembered that , the decision to build two high schools had a more long lasting and prodigious benefit to Roane county in far reaching ways. It solidified the counties historically long rivalries in more areas than education -- the unity of which the county had never seen. Now, the local educational model was the envy of many counties in the state, as high tech companies chose to relocate to the county and the Midtown area became a hub for medical facilities. All of this because the school board and county commission had risked their political futures by implementing something that they believed in and would pay dividends to the county for many years ahead. Mr. Skidmore silently thanked both bodies for their commitment and vision 12 years earlier.
Sports in 2029
Mr. Skidmore had a busy week attending all the festivities leading up to the yearly rivalry game between Roane East and Roane West. There had been the annual parade when both schools had floats, bands, dance teams and cheerleaders. This year the robotics clubs of both schools had their remotely driven carts that tossed candy to the parade attendees. He had even participated in the “Battle of Roane” 5k road race on the Saturday before the game. Plus the pre-game tailgating that had become an integral part of the festivities.
The winner of the game got to keep the traveling trophy with their name and year added. The program for the game was always a collectible as it had the rosters and team photos of each team and box scores for every game since the inaugural game in 2019.
But as hard as both teams played, they always gathered at midfield after the game and shook hands. Many even went out to get ice cream together after the game. How close were they? When Roane East played for the state championship in 2023, Roane West was there supporting them. Likewise in 2027 when Roane West went to the championship game, Roane East was leading the cheers.
The sports rivalry didn’t end with football. The same chronology of rosters and box scores were kept for all sporting events between the schools -- basketball, soccer, track and field, volleyball, softball, baseball, cross country, golf, wrestling, tennis, and bowling. Even when TSSAA added lacross and bass fishing in 2023 - those results were added.
In what rapidly became a very popular publication, was a summary of all sporting events between the school where one could see information on who were the MVP’s of the contests, who holds the intra-county record for most home runs in a career, or most free throws in the game, etc.
More Than Athletics, it was Really About Academics and County Pride
The two high school concept proved over and over again to be the best county-wide decision and investment ever made. The proximity of Roane State Community College, Pellissippi State Community College, the University of Tennessee, the Pellissippi Parkway technology corridor, the exploding medical facilities in the Midtown area and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory provided students pathways and inspiration to perform well and participate in summer programs, dual-credit courses, and the Middle College program. Colleges sent personnel to give career day talks to both Roane East and Roane West schools as well as providing all students with first hand knowledge of the advantages of having a good education. Around the Pellissippi corridor students learned about the exploding technical areas as there are two facilities that are printing 3-D automobiles among other new technologies.
Another by-product of the two school concept is that just like the competition in sports, there is competition in academics and after school club activities. Robotics teams, debate clubs, fund raising activities, all competed against each to see who has the best. If one school started an activity and it was successful, the the other school started theirs to keep up. If there was just one high school there would be no encouragement to keep the school in competition with each other.
In what may be the best outgrowth the two high school venture is the vocation programs offered. Vocational training had been around for years, but it only served a handful of Roane County students. This was because students from the outlying schools like Midway and Oliver Springs had to basically spend an entire day away from their schools just to take a two hour course because they would be on the road to and from their zoned school area. But with the two school concept, students would already be at one of the high schools and could participate in available training.
Benefits were obvious. Auto mechanic students were leaving high school and being hired making $50/hr. Robotics students could go to work immediately programming the rapidly expanding use of robotics in manufacturing. Students were learning web design and programming. How did they get experience doing this? They went out and developed websites for community businesses, organizations, churches, and sports teams. They even performed maintenance on school computer infrastructure by providing backup, virus scans, firewall maintenance, keeping databases running, and teaching computer technologies to other students and even teachers and administration . Nursing and Health programs provided opportunities for interested students to get a head start in the exploding medical field.
There were many more training opportunities offered for students who did not want to pursue the college course direction. Heck, the vocation students even wore their badge of honor to school by wearing shirts that said “Roane County Applied Technologies”. They were envied.
The two school concept played well with changing educational programs. If it was decided to be a STEM school adjustments could be made to handle that. If vouchers became the law, they would be ready. This would not be doable with one large school and two remote location high schools.
How the County Morphed into the Most Progressive County in the State
Roane County was primed to become one of the most envied counties in the state. It had two Community Colleges within 20 miles, University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Oak Ridge National Laboratory that contains the world's fastest computer, and the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), the Pellissippi Technology Corridor that has the most advanced 3-D Printing facilities in the world, and a booming medical corridor in Midtown along with a state of the art hospital.
Add all of this to a county that has more miles of navigational waterways than any in the state, generous areas of underdeveloped land, close proximity to the Great Smoky mountains, numerous hiking trails in the Obed watershed and Cumberland Plateau, a major interstate that divides the county in half, a crossroads for east/west, north/south rail and automobile traffic making the county a haven for recreation.
All the ingredients were there in 2017, but the pot needed stirring -- and it was the revitalization of the school system that was the spark that ignited the greatest 10 years in Roane County history. It was the school's’ energy and healthy competition between East Roane and West Roane that drew the families to the county and united existing families in the county.
With all the recreational opportunities, the post high school academic opportunities nearby, the high tech companies close and medical job opportunities nearby and the robust progressive school system -- all came together in the perfect storm to make Roane County what it is in 2029.
Questionable School Board Moves
Mr. Skidmore remembered the cascade of questionable moves the school board had made beginning with the gift of $32 million from TVA after the ash spill in December 2008. Once the school board got the money they immediately decided to follow the time honored tradition of “everybody gets something” (meaning each area of the county gets something). So among other things, the board decided to build two new gymnasiums, modify another gymnasium, build a new school in the only area of the county that had seen negative growth in the last 15 years (-6%), build an $800,000 band room at Kingston high school, add classrooms to Kingston elementary school and expanding the school to the point that it can no longer be added on to. The Kingston move proved to be a colossal mistake since the board completely ignored the 15% growth of east Roane county resulting in the Kingston elementary and middle schools with no room for the growth.
He remembered that many in the county wondered why the obvious question wasn't asked by at least one of the ten board members: - “Hey guys, we have eight schools many of which were built before Alaska became a state so why don’t we set aside the money until we get together and make a long range plan for the future of our county facilities and use this $32 million as a bootstrap to meeting our long range plans”. But, that was not to be, the money was burning a hole in their pocket so they spent it without looking at a long term solution to the future of Roane county schools.
Musings around the county were: - “The school board is like a board of directors for a company, Do you think they would remain on the board if they ran a company the way they run the school system?. They get $32 million dollars and build gyms and band rooms instead of planning the long time future of the school system.”
The questionable school board moves had re-surfaced in February 2017 when the board voted to build one high school, then because of negative feedback, voted again. This time to keep the old five county high schools and remodel them. Then in April they voted yet again, this time to build one consolidated high school that combined Rockwood, Harriman and Kingston and upgrade the facilities in Midway and Oliver Springs.
When the new plan arose to consolidate schools , a short 7-years since the TVA money was spent - the school boards action looked even worse. “Why, seven years after the TVA money was spent did they decide to look at consolidation -- why didn’t they look at this in the first place?” In 2008 the school board had $44 million on hand to spend ($32 million from TVA and a $12 million fund balance). Seven years later they’re wanting $50 million and only have $5 million in their fund balance. No wonder the public was leary of their decisions.
Things got worse. The board’s timing was bad because they had not realized that all 15-county commissioners were up for re-election in the summer of 2018 - and it was unlikely they would vote any tax increase to fund any building program, as the county commission has to provide the funds for the running of the schools.
The board was also asking for money for the building program but had no answer when asked “do you have a transportation plan?” , “do you have a maintenance plan?” “What is your long term plan for middle schools and elementary schools?, “Do you have a staffing plan?”” Their answer? “We’ll work that out later”. With the recent history of the school board’s actions - you could understand the community skepticism about the board’s lack of response to the questions.
Getting It Right
Mr. Skidmore remembered what happened after county commission did not vote for the funding of the school board’s plan to build one high school to replace schools in Rockwood, Kingston and Harriman and make modifications to Midway and Oliver Springs.
He could not remember the details, but what happened next was the genesis of morphing Roane County into the flagship county and one of the most envied counties in the state. The county came together to plan as a group how they wanted the school system to look.
There was a capital improvement plan drawn up by a committee of school board members, some county commissioners, and selected other elected county and city officials, community leaders, and members of local businesses that have a finger on the pulse of the county growth.
The committee's charter was:
The importance of this committee and its importance was not understated. Not only did long term capital replacement plans need to be made for the survival of the school system, but the committee's decisions would affect future county infrastructure, future new potential business decisions (as companies look for strong, stable school systems when deciding where to relocate or expand), where roads will be built, and where subdivisions will be created. Having this knowledge families new to the area would know where to locate.
The committee was made up of people with open minds pertaining to the future of Roane County schools without the area bias that has been in place for 60+ years. This was why non-school board personnel were included on the committee..
The committee realized that they were the most important committee in the county at any level in the last fifty years - as their decisions dictated the future development of the county in so many areas. The committee went to work and compiled into one document all the major anticipated upgrades that need to be made to the schools in the next 10 years, and
Once a decision was made on what facilities would look like, they developed an implementation plan that included a timeline and funding requirements.
One of the major concerns of the committee was cost. They realized it would be cheaper to build one consolidated high school for Kingston, Rockwood, and Harriman and remodel Midway and Oliver Springs for a property tax increase of $.0.28 cents, but by adding $.05 cents and making the increase $.0.33 cents they could have two high schools and reap the enormous benefits that would come with that plan. The committee's reasoning that “how much MORE upset would people be with a $0.33 cent increase rather than a $0.28 increase - when the county was getting the advantage of two high schools?”
When the plan was complete everyone in the county was on board because the committee had painstakingly distributed all information on social media, had reached out and spoke to local civic organizations, and nobody was surprised when the plan went to vote on county commission.. Thus the plan was implemented and funding was secured by unanimous vote on the County Commission and the plan was implemented.
Mr. Skidmore realized that he and the rest of Roane county were changed forever by the work of the 2017 Capital Improvement Committee. The centerpiece of the entire project was the decision to build two like sized high schools.
“Wake up Dale”
Mr. Skidmore remembered being shaken and hearing his wife with “Wake up Dale, Wake up Dale” he awoke and realized that everything he’d just been dreaming about was just that - a dream. He was ready to face another day with a divided county, school system in chaos, county commissioners not agreeing on any issue and a stagnant population that was complaining everyday about bad roads and stray dogs and cats.
The much debated issue of consolidating Rockwood, Harriman, and Kingston schools and leaving Midway and Oliver Springs as small satellite schools had happened because county commission voted to fund the building of the school board’s plan. A vote that would haunt the county for 50 or more years to come.
In the school boards zest to implement a bad building plan they had failed to look at side effects of leaving Oliver Springs and Midway.
School board was patting themselves on their backs because they had listened to the cry from Oliver Springs and Midway that had wanted to keep their schools. They didn’t look around to other school systems. When consolidated Anderson County high school was created there was the usual deriding from Lake City and Norris, same thing from Wynn, LaFollette, and Jacksboro when they were consolidated into Campbell County, or when Vonore and Madisonville were merged into Sequoyah or when Maury, Rush Strong, White Pine and Jefferson City were consolidated into Jefferson County. Do you know how long the “we want to keep our local schools” manthra continued at these consolidated schools? About two days after school started at the new consolidated school. Ask almost anyone who had graduated from Anderson County, Jefferson County, Sequoyah, and Campbell county if they thought the consolidation was good -- you would get an almost unanimous “yes”.
Realization that a mistake had been made was first recognized by the three school board members from Oliver Springs and Midway. Initially, they were deemed as heroes because they saved their schools. But they failed to remember how turf protecting school board members are. Now any vote on doing anything to the high schools always leaned towards the consolidated school. The first time a vote came up to add something new to the consolidated school that vote was 7-3. That was a harbinger of things to come. The seven members who represented the consolidated schools didn’t need the votes from the three from Oliver Springs and Midway -- thus began a many year begging for improvements for their schools went unheard -- the consolidated school was the golden high school child.
It had only taken three years, but in 2022 the school board’s open enrollment policy of allowing any student in the county to attend any county school if they provided their own transportation and there was room was being stressed. Reason was the consolidated school was filling up with students from Midway and Oliver Springs.
Why was this?
Reasons were many.
So the trickle of transfers from Oliver Springs and Midway to the new consolidated school had become a flood. Each morning car pools of students would leave the small schools to come to the shiny new school so they could be involved with vocational programs, sports teams, take courses not offered at their school and become part of the close integration with Roane State Community College and participate in more after school club activities.
There were other by-products of the migration of students from Oliver Spring and Midway that weren't easy to solve. In order to alleviate the overcrowding at the consolidated school by the unexpected flow of Midway and Oliver Springs students the school board at first decided to just re-zone school boundaries to send more students to Midway and Oliver Springs -- but then realized that bus routes would have to change which in turn affected students attending middle and elementary schools. Even bigger was the battle the board had from families that had been re-zoned to the smaller schools rather than the consolidated school. Another silent effect that was hard to analyze was that so many of the top students at Midway and Oliver Springs were attending the consolidated school that statewide test scores were falling at the schools. As the scores dropped, more of the better students in turn went to the consolidated school -- it was a vicious cycle.
When they thought things would not get any worse, there were the isolated incidents of bullying that aroused when middle school and high school students were under the same roof at Oliver Springs..
There was another problem that happened at Oliver Springs that resulted from the void left by the students who went to attend the consolidated school. Oliver Springs began to have a large number of Anderson County and Morgan county students attend the school. The school board thought about just denying their admission, but then found out Roane county and most school systems have reciprocal agreements with adjoining counties to let students attend from out-of county. If Roane County denied access to their out of county students then Morgan county would deny Roane students who live on county lines to attend their schools - Cumberland would not allow Roane County students, as would Rhea, Meigs, and Loudon.
Another factor the school board had used in voting in the one consolidated school and leaving Midway and Oliver Springs was that less students would be able to play sports if there was just one or two high schools in the county. They had not taken the time to look at participation numbers and look at the future of small schools in Tennessee.
In 2017, the TSSAA (Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association) basically removed private schools from competing with public schools. The move was lauded by small schools since they now felt they had a better chance of competing for state titles. What they hadn’t realized was that the landscape of small public schools was changing in the state. Numerous charter schools were forming that were small, but almost all were located in large cities. .
The result? After a few years both Midway and Oliver Springs had to travel MORE miles to compete in regional play than the consolidated school. The problem was most acute in football when in 2023 Midway was put into a football region with schools in upper East Tennessee - so travel to a regular season game was up to four hours.
The reality is that small rural public schools are a vanishing breed. In 1949 the TSSAA had 430 schools making up a membership with 95% of the schools small rural. In 1942, Roane county had 36 schools recognized by the state, but by 2017 they had 15. By 2017 there were only 14 small public schools in east Tennessee that were the same size or smaller than Midway and Oliver Springs. Upper east Tennessee: Clinch, Washburn, Unaka, Cloudland and Hancock County. Chattanooga Area: Copper Basin, Whitwell, Lookout Valley and Sale Creek. Area schools: Coalfield, Oakdale, Sunbright, Greenback and Jellico. Over the time period from 2017 to 2029 this number would drop -- so it is easy to see the coming travel crises for Midway and Oliver Springs when scheduling district games in various sports. To further exasperate their position, when scheduling athletic events against non-district teams, they had to play schools much larger than themselves -- the result was losing records which in turn created apathy and loss of interest.
Adding to the misery of travel -- many of the top athletes at Midway and Oliver Springs had chosen to attend the consolidated school because of the significantly better facilities, competition, media coverage and fan support.
The consolidated school had its own TSSAA classification alignment matter. They were just big enough in enrollment that they had to play schools like Oak Ridge, Farragut, Maryville, Rhea County, and Campbell County in all sports.
If the board had gone with a two high school scenario, both schools would play the same teams in district/region play in all sports (leading to more rivalry when they played each other). But, they would have significantly less travel overall because their opponents would be Cumberland County, Stone Memorial, Anderson County, Meigs County, Lenoir City, and possibly Rhea County -- much less travel - meaning more fans would follow the teams to away games.
The sport participation issue was not studied by the school board. In 2017 the five Roane County high schools had 720 students participate in athletics. There were 513 at Rockwood, Harriman and Kingston and 207 at Oliver Springs and Midway. If two high schools had been built there would be approximately students 1,060 at each school and about 650 would participate in sports.
Table shows that no matter what the school configuration is approximately the same amount of students would participate in sports, so using sport participation as part of the decision to build a consolidated school and leave Midway and Oliver Springs is a non-factor.
Five high schools in 2017
Consolidated school and leaving Midway and Oliver Springs
Consolidated school -1,517, Midway and Oliver Springs - 613
670 in all Roane County (Consolidated school 470, Midway/Oliver Springs 200)
Two High Schools
1,060 each school. Each school around 1,060 enrollment.
650 (325 for at each school)
Note: Some numbers are projected sport participation based on state average of 31% participation of total school enrollments.
There are more disadvantages of leaving Midway and Oliver Springs alone. These schools don’t offer the same amount of sports that the consolidated school did. . In 2017 Midway had seven team sports and Oliver Springs nine. The new consolidated school would have 18. Midway and Oliver Springs get shortchanged again by not being able to provide students with the ability to experience other sports.
Enter the TSSAA Cooperative program rules. TSSAA bylaws state that schools can co-op with other schools on a sport-by-sport basis. It would be natural for both Oliver Springs and Midway to co-op with the consolidated school in the sports they do not have, but there is a problem. Example, Midway could co-op with the consolidated school in volleyball, but Oliver Springs could not. Oliver Springs could co-op with the consolidated school in soccer, but Midway could not. So if there happens to be students at Midway and Oliver Springs who want to play volleyball or soccer- someone would be left out. Further issues that could cause hurt feelings and in-fighting between schools and people in the community.
In 2029 Roane County feels the increasing strain of having two small high schools that are being orphaned by the county. Their school board members representing the small schools are lame ducks because they have no bargaining chips at the school board’s table, many of their students are enrolling at the now overcrowded consolidated school so they can take advantages of academic classes that are not offered at their school but at the consolidated school, same goes for vocational students and top athletes. Roane road conditions have improved, as roads widened, and bridges built so that travel time from the edges of the county to the consolidated school is much faster and safer. Midway and Oliver Springs are finding it almost impossible to schedule similar sized schools in athletics and travel is extensive. Midway and Oliver Springs are not just being shorted in academic and after school club activity, even in sports they are being short changed since the consolidated school offers 18 sports which they only offer around 6. .
Then the irony that the biggest reason Midway and Oliver Springs were left because of the community school aspect had changed dramatically - as Oliver Springs became the recipient of urban sprawl and Midway saw a large migration of out of state retirees -- all of which watered-down the small compact communities they once were.
The school board’s decision to leave Midway and Oliver Springs and build a consolidated school for Rockwood, Harriman, and Kingston turned out to be a monumentally bad and costly idea - and one that had haunted the county for for 10 years and would continue for the next 30 years.
If they’d had built two high schools and closed the Midway, Oliver Springs, Rockwood, Kingston and Harriman - Roane county would have become one of the premier counties in the state.
Opinions by Earl Nall