A Private Boost for Knox County Schools

Great School Partnership reconfigures itself to raise funds for Knox County schools

A bright spot amid the gloomy outlook for public school funding in Knox County is the activation of a foundation whose goal is to raise several million dollars a year in private contributions to complement the school system's public funding.

The foundation, provisionally to be named the Public School Foundation of Knoxville, isn't an altogether new entity. Rather, it represents a redirection of what's been known as the Great School Partnership. Upon its formation in 2005, the GSP was instrumental in initiating several public school programs that have proven worthy. But of late, it's become little more than a conduit for channeling about $3.8 million a year in Knox County funding for these programs to the school system.

The redirection calls for this money to go directly from the county to the schools and for a rechristened GSP to transition from a publicly funded entity to one that relies almost exclusively on private funding for new endeavors.

What gives credibility to a local foundation's ability to raise several million dollars a year for schools is the credentials of its executive director, Oliver "Buzz" Thomas. Attracting Thomas to the post was a coup for its Board of Trustees, chaired by Allen Edwards, president of Pellissippi State, and including Laurens Tullock, president of the Cornerstone Foundation, Chamber of Commerce President Mike Edwards, Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, School Superintendant Jim McIntyre and representatives of the Knox County Education Association and the Knoxville Area Urban League, among others.

The 55-year-old Thomas had previously served for eight years as executive director of the Greeneville-based Niswonger Foundation, which committed upwards of $60 million to school programs throughout Upper East Tennessee on his watch. On top of that, he's an ordained Baptist minister, a lawyer who once taught at the Georgetown University Law Center, a former chairman of the Maryville Board of Education, and a journalist who continues to write a column for USA Today.

"Buzz is a true renaissance man, a consummate gentleman, and he blew our minds when he said he'd do it," Edwards says. In turn, Thomas cites Edwards' commitment to raising education standards and attainment as evidence of "an engaged business community that recognizes the future of the region economically is tied to the future of the region educationally... Mike Edwards gets that; Jim McIntyre gets that; Allen Edwards gets that; Laurens Tullock gets that. All these folks have come together—business leaders, school leaders, philanthropic leaders—to say, ‘Let's have a world-class school system.' That's what attracted me to Knoxville."

For all that, Knoxville hasn't done very much to date by way of private-sector support for its public school system. And especially at a time when public-sector resources are being driven down by recessionary erosion of tax revenues, Thomas believes it's imperative for the private sector to step up. He points to Chattanooga, where a public school foundation has raised $60 million privately over the past decade, and says, "We want to do something very similar in Knox County."

Moreover, he believes the GSP's dependence on county government for its funding has "created some barriers to its effectiveness because when you come to the table you're not really bringing resources of your own... So what we want to do is stop looking to the county for money but rather to go out into the community to raise it as a private-sector foundation and then work as a strategic friend with the school system to help them reach their goals."

Just what these funds raised by the foundation would go toward remains to be determined. In general, they'd be used to further aims set forth in McIntyre's strategic plan for Knox County schools, which Thomas showers with praise. He says he's working with the school system's directors of elementary, middle, and high schools on the particulars.

One area of emphasis will be on enhancing student preparedness for these transitions. "We're sending lots of kids to middle school who aren't ready for middle school, and have all kinds of kids going into high school who aren't ready for high school. So we're conceiving and thinking about what sorts of intervention and remedial programs we can implement to get them ready," Thomas says.

Fund-raising isn't due to start until planned uses of the money have been set—on a timetable that calls for their completion in early April. "Then we're going to go out into the community and say here's the plan, here's what we're going to do, and we need your help... And we've got to really ramp that up, going after national foundations as well."

The annual fund-raising goal might be on the order of $5 million to $10 million. But Thomas says that, "I'm just guessing at this point. We'll set that goal after we see what they want us to do, serving as a critical friend, not just ‘whatever you want, we'll go out and raise the money for it.'" And he also stresses that, "Each project we do will have measurable benchmarks of success. If it doesn't do well, it won't be getting any more money."

In the meantime, the county funding that is now going to the GSP will be rerouted directly to the school system on a transitional basis. As a first step in that direction, County Commission last month approved reallocation of $1.2 million for a kindergarten intervention program. The other biggest components of GSP funding are $650,000 for a birth-to-kindergarten program and $1.4 million for a program known as TAP that pays salary supplements to teachers for mentoring roles and student performance gains in four schools. But Thomas also stresses that expansion of TAP to more schools is something the foundation might undertake because it's been "a tremendous success."

As much as the foundation may be able to help the school system's most critical needs, it's by no means a panacea for the system's funding woes. With revenues flat and fixed costs increasing by $14 million for things like pension obligations, health insurance, and mandatory step (seniority) raises for teachers, McIntyre has recommended cutting 22 classroom teachers and 50 other school jobs, among other reductions, in order to balance the school system's budget for the fiscal year ahead.

A coveted federal grant could help relieve the strain if Tennessee gets selected for competitive Race to the Top funds that are due to be awarded in April. But this would be a one-time boost, and a successful private foundation holds more promise for spurring local school initiatives on an ongoing basis.