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By Steve Hunley

If you build it, they will come. Those words spoken about a baseball park carved out of an Iowa cornfield have recently taken on new relevance in the minds and hearts of two communities located in opposite ends of Knox County. People in Hardin Valley and Gibbs are each rallying for the construction of a new middle school in their respective areas. Hardin Valley traverses the length of deep West Knox County between Karns and Farragut, while the Gibbs community is tucked in the hills of the Northeast sector within spitting distance of Union and Grainger counties. But do not think for one moment that this is another East vs. West battle.

In reality, there has been no battle at all. Both communities have expressed genuine support for the other’s educational needs. Each has spoken in favor of the other community getting a new middle school. Neither has appeared to jockey for position at the other’s expense for consideration in the Superintendent’s capital plan. The unity displayed by the people of Gibbs and Hardin Valley provides a rare glimpse into the reality that schools are not always built for the same reasons. Nor do they have to be.

The reasons for building a new middle school in Hardin Valley appear cut and dried. It’s a simple case of numbers. According to Knox County Schools, an independent study has shown that a middle school built to house 1,200 students is needed to accommodate the present and future growth in the Hardin Valley community. Even a proposed pricetag in excess of $30 million is not being cited as a deterrent to building a Hardin Valley Middle School. No one in Gibbs is arguing.

At the School Board’s budget workshop last Monday, School Superintendent Jim McIntyre listened as several citizens of the Gibbs community spoke in favor of Hardin Valley getting its middle school. They did not dispute the rapid growth of this area of the county, nor was anyone in denial of the fact that Hardin Valley Academy is now the county’s largest high school. The Gibbs supporters were clear in their agreement that Hardin Valley needs a new middle school. But what emerged from the Hardin Valley folks was clear as well: Gibbs needs a middle school too.

The reasons for building a middle school in the Gibbs community might not be quite as mathematical, but they are every bit as compelling. Maybe even more so. While Hardin Valley appears to meet virtually every numerical threshold necessary to warrant construction of a new school, the folks in Northeast Knox County may have an even stronger case. Because statistics aside, there remains one inescapable fact: Gibbs had a middle school. In 1991, amid impassioned pleas and protests from the community, Knox County Schools closed Gibbs Middle School under the guise of a compliance plan with the Office of Civil Rights. Subsequent rulings by the U. S. Supreme Court have deemed similar closures both unnecessary and unconstitutional. While specific reasons for the action have faded over time, the sense of injustice suffered by the Gibbs community has remained. For many it has become a festering wound.

Since 1991, students from the Gibbs-Corryton area have been shipped out of their community to East Knoxville to attend Holston Middle School. By all indications Holston is a fine school that provides good educational opportunities. But it is not in the Gibbs community. In the words of one Gibbs citizen, “If I had wanted my kids to go to Holston, I’d have bought a house in Holston Hills.”

For 24 years students in the northern areas of the Gibbs community have endured long bus rides – some an hour or more in duration – to attend middle school. But the long “commute” (which used to be called busing) does not present a problem worth fixing in the eyes of the Superintendent.

In his proposal to the Board of Education to be voted on this Monday, Superintendent McIntyre is asking that a Hardin Valley Middle School be placed on next year’s capital plan for construction in the near future, while stating he doesn’t think there is a “viable need” for one in Gibbs. The Gibbs Middle School was canned in favor of a north sector elementary school that was not on anyone’s radar, and was absent from discussion at any of the community forums held last year by the school system, during which a Gibbs Middle School consistently emerged as the number one or two issue brought up by people in all sectors of the county. The fact that two new schools are being proposed while Gibbs Middle continues to be ignored is a slap in the face to an already frustrated community. McIntyre’s reasoning for refusing to build a Gibbs Middle School was that it is fine for Gibbs students to continue to commute “some distance” to Holston Middle where they can receive a “very high quality” education. Some distance, indeed.

One citizen of the Gibbs community addressed Superintendent McIntyre and the School Board last week and told of how this excessive travel time and distance forced one of his children to give up something they dearly loved so that his other child could continue to participate in a school activity they enjoyed, because of the distance between Gibbs High and Holston Middle. This is a dilemma many Gibbs families have had to face since 1991. The idea that children should have to give up an extracurricular activity they love because their school is not in their community is an unspeakable injustice. But apparently it’s perfectly fine if you live in Gibbs.

For the moment things appear hopeful in Hardin Valley. McIntyre is asking for their school to be placed on the capital plan. Meanwhile the Gibbs folks will have to keep fighting. But the fight shouldn’t be against Hardin Valley. In fact the fight for two middle schools should not be an either or proposition at all. It should be an all or nothing one. If McIntyre will not propose building both schools, then Knox County should build neither. Funding one without the other would be an egregious misuse of taxpayer dollars. But the reality is that both communities deserve better.

Unfortunately Superintendent McIntyre is not directly accountable to the people of either Hardin Valley or Gibbs, but instead answers to the nine-member School Board. In the 1990’s, election by the people of school superintendents was banned by the State Legislature in favor of appointment by local school boards. The measure purported to take politics out of the school system. Yet since its passage, the Knox County School Board has remained deeply divided by politics. Even the independent study cited in McIntyre’s capital proposal referred to the “political sensitivity” of building a Gibbs Middle School – a very insightful observation from impartial outsiders.

Perhaps it is finally time for the leaders of our school system, who claim such disdain for politics, to put their money where their mouth is, set political grudges aside, and simply do the right thing. Not according to a study, not strictly by the statistics, not driven by agendas, but in the name of justice, fairness, and in the best interest of the parents and students they took an oath to serve. Just as there is more to education than mathematics, so there is more to consider than numbers and dollars when it comes to building schools. Jim McIntyre and the Board of Education are not to blame for the closure of Gibbs Middle School. They are not the ones responsible for the wrong done to the Gibbs community 24 years ago. They just happen to be the ones with the power to right it.