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By Steve Hunley

“Leaders” need a history lesson on Gibbs Middle School

A recent article in the local daily paper cited concerns raised by “community leaders” over the proposed construction of a middle school in the Gibbs community. Their issues with the proposal stem from a fear that a new school in Gibbs would have a negative effect on Holston Middle, which Gibbs area students currently attend. Let’s call it the ‘Holston effect.’ It is an effect with which Gibbs residents are intimately familiar.

The Holston effect has been negatively impacting the Gibbs community since 1991, when Gibbs Middle School was closed and students were subsequently bused out of their community to attend the newly created Holston Middle School. During the ensuing 24 years the Holston effect has been far-reaching, impacting everything from real estate activity to commercial development to life-altering decisions for families. Many Gibbs area families have sought transfers for their children to other middle schools that were closer to their homes (Horace Maynard Middle in Maynardville is actually closer to the northern half of Gibbs than Holston is). Others have taken on great financial burdens to send their kids to private school rather than face the often long bus commute.

The economic impact of the Holston effect on the Gibbs community has been nothing short of devastating. One former Knox County Commissioner (from a district outside Gibbs) said it is “untold the number of real estate deals it has killed in the past 24 years.” Young families, who would otherwise love to move into the Gibbs community, have chosen not to do so because there is no middle school.

Not surprisingly, the Holston effect has also hindered healthy commercial and economic growth for Gibbs, negatively impacting a potentially significant revenue base for Knox County. Unlike the school system, MPC has noted this potential for the northeast sector in its growth projections for more than a decade, and TDOT is currently widening the intersection of Tazewell Pike and Emory Road, also known as Harbisons Crossroads, to accommodate increased traffic flow. Churches in the area are growing, but many of their new members are reluctant to locate in the community due to the lack of a middle school.

It is the single missing piece of the puzzle for one of Knox County’s great communities. But according to the article in question, certain “leaders” appear determined to keep the puzzle unfinished. Commissioner Sam McKenzie and BOE Member Gloria Deathridge, both of the First District, could not have expressed more disdain for Gibbs than if they had been throwing darts at a portrait of Nicholas Gibbs himself, the community’s founder.

Deathridge, whose School Board district includes Holston, repeatedly referred to the proposed Gibbs Middle as “this school” or “that school.” McKenzie, on the other hand, made references that were far more revealing, expressing concern over the potential effects a new Gibbs Middle might have on “my community school.” McKenzie went on to say that if a Gibbs Middle School is built and the populations of the two communities are divided, “neither can stand on its own.” Deathridge insinuated that building a Gibbs Middle would take “the majority” of Holston’s enrollment. Even the numbers from the school system’s own study do not support such claims, stating that a new Gibbs Middle School would house a projected 775 students by 2019, leaving nearly 600 at Holston. That should be more than enough for Holston to “stand on its own,” since barely half that number currently attend neighboring Vine Middle School.

McKenzie’s remarks were stunningly accurate in one sense: Gibbs and Holston are two separate communities. Yet his reference to Holston as “my community school” reveals an equally stunning level of hypocrisy. Community schools are obviously important to McKenzie – unless it involves someone else’s community. And he is dead wrong about another aspect of his comments. The Gibbs community can definitely stand on its own.

Perhaps the most telling line in the entire article was McKenzie’s response to the Gibbs community’s 24-year fight to get their middle school back. “I tell people, Gibbs has a middle school. The name of it is Holston.”

Imagine if history had been guided by such logic.

“Gentlemen of the Continental Congress, you have a nation. It’s called England.”

“Ms. Parks, you have a seat. It’s in the back.”

Am I equating a school construction issue with the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement? Certainly not. I am merely pointing out that injustice is injustice, no matter what spin someone tries to put on it. Would it be ‘justice’ if we zoned kids from the Carter community (which is closer to Holston than Gibbs is) to the Holston-Chilhowee area, and told the Carter folks “you have a middle school?” The same convoluted logic could be applied to virtually every community in Knox County.

And while we’re on the subject of the weightier matters of history, here’s a history lesson on the Gibbs-Holston issue. Gibbs had a middle school before Holston was ever a middle school. If these “leaders” want to talk about the negative effects losing some students might have on Holston, how about the negative effect losing an entire school has had on Gibbs? Where was the outcry in 1991 when Gibbs Middle School was suddenly taken away from its community under the guise of a desegregation plan?

This is where a real history lesson is needed. In 1991, several schools were closed in the Knox County system. Among them were Holston High School, which was left over from the old City School System, and Gibbs Middle School. So what was the relationship between the two? Holston High School was the most racially integrated school in Knox County, with a virtually 50/50 Black-White ratio. It was closed, and re-opened as an 87% White middle school, made so by busing kids in from another community. That may be called desegregation in Alabama, but where I come from it looks a lot more like re-segregation. And it was a smoke screen for a very different agenda. And that agenda was to keep city schools open no matter what.

The reality was that Holston High School was dying. Its numbers had dwindled dramatically in the late 1980s, a reflection of a community that was in a population decline. So, in what amounted to an effort to “prop up” a declining community, the school system converted Holston into a middle school and re-populated it by busing in hundreds of kids from the Gibbs-Corryton community. It was a gross injustice in 1991, and it remains so in 2015.

The truth is, the economic difficulties of the Holston-Chilhowee area began long before Gibbs Middle School was ever closed. The Gibbs community, however, is in no such decline. But it has been hindered from reaching its full potential by efforts to artificially populate another community’s middle school, a practice applauded by McKenzie, who alleged that there are enough schools in the district, and the school system should continue a zoning policy that “puts enough bodies in our buildings.”

That works fine for McKenzie, so long as the buildings are in his community and the bodies come from someplace else. Despite his so-called concern for “community schools” McKenzie decried the desire of the Gibbs community to see their middle school returned, suggesting that their efforts have “blinded” the people of his district on the issue. Perhaps it is Commissioner McKenzie and Ms. Deathridge who are blind to the impact the Holston effect has had on Gibbs.

Those who oppose a Gibbs Middle School can continue to talk about how everything is fine without one, but those are hollow words to those who live with this reality every day. And 24 years after its closure, the people of Gibbs have never stopped fighting to get their middle school back. The closure of Gibbs Middle School was a wrong done by a previous generation of leaders. But equally as wrong is the unwillingness of some current leaders to fix it.

They say if you tell people a lie long enough, they will eventually believe it. Yet for 24 years the families of the Gibbs community have been offered the same disingenuous story with the same hypocritical excuses.

And they’re still not buying it.