Babies slept by their parents feet as they waited to fight for their children future. Photos by Vivian Shipe

By Vivian Shipe

KNOXVILLE, TN — The maximum occupancy sign outside the large assembly room of the City County Building in Knoxville stated it could hold 613 sitting.  That number, along with the hundreds standing on both levels and the 300 standing outside , locked out by the fire Marshall, circling the building, banging on the windows demanding to be able to see into the room meant over 1000 came to protest and be heard during the school board workshop.

Those who could not get in the meeting began to form prayer chains to stop the board from defunding the programs helping inner city students.

They were citizens of Knoxville and Knox county , from all walks of life. There were pastors, teachers, parents, children, civil rights leaders from the sixties, and business and community leaders – and they were upset . Upset enough to create history.

The building authorities had NEVER seen a crowd like the one that descended Monday April 9th. They had also never had 87 people sign up to speak during public forum about the plan to strip the budget of dollars that served the inner city children of Knoxville. The plan presented would completely defund the Project Grad program; a seventeen year program that among it’s many programs, serving K thru 12 also prepares  economically disadvantaged youth for college.

Food, toys and mats provided for the kids as the parents settled in for the next seven hours.

Also upsetting was the second recommendation  by  superintendent, Bob Thomas to completely strip away the magnet programs from Green Magnet School and Sarah Moore Greene, both the poorest elementary schools in the city. Parents only learned of this cut three days before the school board workshop with the vote to be held on Wednesday.

The  87 citizens had their say on Monday. They brought their children who slept on the floor while their parents fought for them.

Executive Director of Project Grad, Ronnie Chandler is supported by civil rights leader Theotis Robinson who marched and sat at lunch counters in the sixties.

The school board meeting lasted seven and a half hours, ending a little before one in the morning. Each citizen used their five minutes to speak of the value of both programs to the child and the community with some of the most passionate and cutting words coming from leaders and pastors who spoke with the passion and courage of the  days of Dr. King.

Reverend Doctor Valentino  J. McNeal  who spoke both Monday and  Wednesday offered no apologies as he spoke about the systematic racism the decision displayed, the implied statements by board members that the grades from the inner city schools were inferior to those of other districts, and the divisive nature of the budget.

The vote was set for Wednesday the 11th.

The people returned. They came by buses and packed the large assembly room on a church night, over 700 strong.  This time, they brought recorders and cell phones with the intention of going live to the world as they filmed the education system being set back 50 years in Knoxville TN by a board , with the exception of the district rep, Gloria Deathridge and a few others; seemingly unconcerned of the ramifications of their decision on the lives and futures of the children in the community where these schools exist.

When it was time for the vote the board on the recommendation of board member Terry Hill, and with a second by member Lynn Fugate, unanimously agreed to postpone the vote untill April 30th to give them time to look deeper into the 483.3 million dollar budget, to talk to State legislature, and see if there was any way to find more money.

As the public filed out of the meeting,  groups and individuals were already  making plans to spend the next two weeks contacting the county commissioners, who oversee  the school board and plan to begin a writing campaign to  the board,  commission and the state to ask for more money.

The people of the community also plan to return on April 30th with their cameras and cellphones recording . There is also a plan in place  of doubling the numbers so that there will be a witness and a record should the board decide to vote against the children of the inner city and their future and to have a permanent record of who voted to take the growing city of Knoxville backwards 50 years by showing how they value different students and how they perceive and handle disparity in educational outcomes.

Over 1000 people were inside and outside the school board meeting


April 11, 2018

Open Letter To Knox County School Board  by Reverend Doctor Valentino McNeal

School Board Members:

It deeply saddens me to be compelled to write this type of letter to you.  I have spent all my adult life in service to our country and being a public servant.  As a retired 28 year, highly decorated Commissioned and Non-Commissioned Officer in the United States Air Force and now a Senior Pastor in a local church, I am appalled at the disingenuous presentation of the proposed budget for the upcoming school year, by some of these elected public officials.  Allow me to remind you that, public officials are elected to serve the needs of the people, not their own self-serving ideologies, ideals or interests.

I must commend Jennifer Owen, Gloria Deathridge, Susan Horn, and Lynne Fugate, who presented the budget with integrity and highlighted it’s severe shortcomings.  I believe the public appreciated and respected their candor and honesty that, we expect from all of our elected officials.  However, the remaining board members and even the student representative to the school board, deportment can be characterized from “apathy to appalling.”

The board chair, Patti Bounds did not display the needed leadership to ensure the condescending and “supremacy” disposition displayed by some of the board members where in kept in check.  I believe she could have easily facilitated this forum in a more professional manner and displayed more sensitivity to the concerns of the constituents.  She should of redirected and clarified some of the misguided presentations made by other board members, instead of being complicit in their gross misapplication of the data.  The School Board Chair, could have easily made a wise leadership decision after a few presentations from the “Public Forum,” because the mere overwhelming presence of citizens from KNOX County, demonstrated loudly and clearly what “The People” wanted this school board to accomplish with this budget.  I am confident, the good-will citizens of KNOX County would have relented from making further presentations, if the school board demonstrated they understood, cared about, and was willing to seek a solution to what “The People” wanted to happen with their tax dollars.  This meeting revealed the glaring and grave leadership failure on this board that, needs to be immediately corrected.

Board member Amber Roundtree, inaccurately conflated “literacy data,” with rationale to cut funding from Project GRAD and from the Magnet Programs at Green and Sarah Moore Green Schools, were shameful.  Her conflated presentation of the data was an insult to people with common sense and especially those who have expertise in this area; who fully knew that, one had absolutely nothing to do with the other.  This is why many citizens during the “Public Forum” refuted and rebuked her disingenuous and ill-fated attempt to conflate “literacy data” with rationale to cut funding from Project GRAD and Magnet Programs at Green and Sarah Moore Green Schools.

The most appalling, despicable, disingenuous, disgraceful, biased, and even bigoted presentation during this meeting was by board member Terry Hill.  I must admit it is painful to replay her arrogant, insensitive and what I believe to be a racist presentation: Terry Hill’s presentation suggested that, to continue to fund the programs targeted for budgetary cuts would be a waste of financial resources.  In essence, she was sending a clear and unsubstantiated message that,  these programs were not beneficial to mostly black children in the underserved impoverished schools and communities of East Knoxville.  Her assumptions were severely flawed and made without the due diligence needed to make such an assessment.  “Leadership 101” demands that, if you are evaluating the worth of a program, you need to understand the program in context.  It is evident that, several school board members do not understand the programs they decided to cut.  It was a sad commentary when only two board members stood, when a “Public Forum” presenter asked, “Which school board members visited the schools they were cutting programs from?”  Enough Said!

Terry Hill’s presentation of the financial support per student from various schools in different districts, were woefully misleading and disingenuous.  She disgracefully ignored and omitted a plethora of critical factors, to explain why a student in a District 1, underserved impoverished school, required more financial support per student, than a student in District 6, or other more affluent school districts.  Her shameful and incomplete presentation in this area, was rebuked and refuted throughout the meeting by many knowledgeable “Public Forum” presenters.

The most diabolically disturbing thing of the entire meeting was Terry Hill’s presentation, in which she without impunity suggested that, an “A” from  Austin East, is somehow inferior to an “A” from another school outside of District 1 (I don’t recall the exact school…you have the tape).

I believe this was the most unfounded, insensitive, bigoted, and even racially charged remark anyone can suggest in private, much less in a public forum.  This speaks in my opinion, to her arrogance, “White Supremacy,” and downright unapologetic racist tendency.

There was nearly a collective gasp in the audience, when she suggested this.  Needless to say, this was offensive on so many levels!  After this statement was made, many of the student presenters from Austin East and District 1schools, throughout the meeting made a special emphasis, to denounce this derogatory and racist comment, by giving concrete examples how their “A” was real and just as worthy as an “A” from one of the more affluent school districts.  Time and time again, students and parents of students from Austin East and other District 1 schools, cited, how their “A” enabled them to graduate as doctors, lawyers, business majors, and other professions from Ivy League Schools and how their “A” helped them garner numerous scholarships from universities all over America.

I can’t stress this enough, how insulting and racially degrading this statement was, not only to students and parents who have children from District 1 schools, but for every person in the East Knoxville Community, every person who attended an underserved impoverished school, and every person of common human decency.

Let me be crystal clear, I believe Terry Hill is utterly unfit to be in Public Office!  I believe she is unfit to be on the KNOX County School Board!   I believe she should immediately and gracefully resign from the school board or be forced to resign.

I insist that, she also recuse herself from the budget process!  Make no mistake about it, with views like she arrogantly and openly displayed, she cannot objectively, fairly and without discrimination, make decisions regarding people whom she deem inferior.  It is evident and clear that, this budget is tainted with the stain of bigotry of the worse kind and is an affront to justice, equality, and even one of the “stated goals” of the school board to “eliminate educational disparities.”

Even as I painstakingly write this letter, my heart still aches and I am somewhat still shocked and nauseated by her audacity to suggest this racial comparison between students of KNOX County Schools.   I suggest and submit to you, because of the overwhelming obstacles and challenges that face many students within District 1 schools, and impoverished communities that, when a student makes an “A” they ought to be lauded and not degraded as being inferior!

Terry Hill needs to make a public apology for her disgraceful and racially charged comments and then she needs to resign from the KNOX County School Board immediately.  I also implore any other member of this school board, to please display some level of integrity and resign, if you know in your heart that, you are biased and bigoted towards people of color or undeserved impoverished people.

Needless to say, this school board is in dire need of new leadership and sensitivity training.  Many of the members are woefully out of touch and have not demonstrated the capacity or willingness to understand the challenges of diverse communities and how they impact students.  I will be more than gladly facilitate this awareness training at no cost!  As a 28 year military leader, I’ve had the pleasure of helping to bridge cultural gaps of people from nearly every societal status, into a harmonious team, where dignity, respect, and understanding, help them achieve and excel beyond the mission’s requirements.

My prayer is for each school board member to humble yourself, look deep within your heart and with integrity of the highest order, adhere to the outcry of “The People,” who sent a resounding and clear message, to Fund Project GRAD and do not cut the Magnet School Programs from Green or Sarah Moore Green, as proposed.  Additionally, please find a way to give the irreplaceable teachers a raise in salary!  “We The People” have spoken!  Are You Listening?

Please Note: I attached my presentation from the “Public Forum” for your deep mediation and consideration.  Finally, please note that, this letter was drafted by a person who made “A’s” from underserved and impoverished schools in Mississippi.  Therefore, there is hope for all of our children, who are likewise challenged.

Prayerfully Submitted,

Valentino J. McNeal

Reverend Dr. Valentino J. McNeal

KNOX County Resident