The recent snows brought up a perspective on an old issue that may never die, though many think it should.
On some days, like last Friday, several area city school systems—Maryville, Alcoa, and Oak Ridge—were open most of the day. It made sense. Most of Wednesday night's big snow had melted the day before. By early Thursday afternoon, the perilous snow and ice were innocent puddles on city streets, evaporating in the sun. Friday was clear, and by 9 a.m., the temperature was above freezing.
But all that Friday, Knox County's schools, including those in Knoxville, remained resolutely closed. It had been a big snow, sure enough, but it melted. Snow was visible on my street for only about 12 hours, and most of that was during the night. But because of it, the school just down the same street was closed for three full days.
When I was a public-school student, a long time ago, city and county school systems were separate. They made snow-day calls independently. When it snowed more than an inch or two, city schools sometimes got a day off. When they reopened, it was always before county schools did, sometimes days before. The explanation was that Knox County school kids lived in hilly areas with country roads that stayed treacherous long after city streets were clear.
We were envious and resentful of our county brethren, of course. Not only did country kids get more snow days off, but when we encountered them on the ball field, we found they didn't have to use grammar, either. They used double and triple negatives with abandon, and were promiscuous about subject-verb agreement.
I recall a cafeteria discussion that explained it all by connecting the two. Their grammatical recklessness, we agreed, was attributable to snow days, and the fact that they didn't get as much schooling as us city kids did. To the fifth-grade mind, it made perfect sense.
I have grown skeptical of that theory. But when the city and county school systems consolidated, city kids started getting, for the first time, luxuriously long snow vacations. It's a demonstration of the fact that as we broaden the scope, we're obliged to live according to regional concerns. If a school can't open in Mascot or Dry Gap, school can't open on snow-plowed streets in central Knoxville, either.
On snowy days and in several other regards, the city is not the same as the county.
For years, I rooted for city-county consolidation. It made sense on several levels, and Nashville-Davidson seemed to offer a model. It would be more efficient, it would be cheaper, and it would reflect the way most people live. People who enjoy the city would help contribute to it with taxes, and also help elect its officials.
But about 10 years ago, a controversy about building a new public library was a revelation to me. An attempt to build a long-overdue central library, funded by what seemed a very modest wheel tax ($30 a year, per vehicle, about 8 cents a day) ran into furious outside-the-city opposition. I don't know what folks were saving for, in the countryside, but it wasn't no downtown library. In the city, it makes sense that Knoxville should have a main library at least as big and modern as, say, Maryville's. In the county, a downtown library is a communist conspiracy, another attempt by city slickers to hoodwink the honest country folk.
Two of the biggest things that started out as city systems—the schools and the libraries—are already consolidated countywide, more or less, giving us a taste of what metro government would be like. Though the Knox County Library's a model system in some ways, it needs a new main facility, it has needed one for 25 years, and it probably won't get it in my lifetime. Its needs would be better met by a more narrowly focused city government.
One government-administered amenity that isn't consolidated yet is public transit, and it may be further proof that consolidation may not yet be an ideal to strive for.
Knoxville, the city, has had some kind of multi-route, multi-vehicle public-transportation network for about 140 years. Knox County does not. It never has, and maybe never will. If you live outside of the city, you probably don't have access to public transportation at all. (Knox County does have the limited Community Action Committee transit program, which prioritizes medical needs and emergencies.) There aren't many counties as populous as Knox County that don't offer support for general public transit. And maybe that's fine with our county residents.
But if city and county consolidated, the county people, who aren't used to thinking about public transit and other city amenities, would be in the majority. And they'd make calls based on county-wide concerns, as they do with snow days.
Consolidation may be mostly about being Bigger, anyway.
We're used to thinking of Nashville as much bigger than Knoxville. Though some early travelers remarked that Knoxville seemed the bigger of the two frontier settlements, Nashville has charted bigger in all official census reports since 1810. There was a spell, during Nashville's antebellum boom, when the new capital was about four times bigger than Knoxville was at the time.
But if I'm reading my census figures and estimates right, there was a brief spell in the 1960s, which I still consider modern history, when Knoxville was slightly bigger than Nashville.
The annexation of Bearden, Fountain City, and a few other areas in 1962 boosted Knoxville's official municipal population by at least 50 percent, and when it was all done, Knoxville city fathers were describing the city's population at "about 180,000." However, by the 1960 census, Nashville, which had lost population in the 1950s, was reckoned as just over 170,000.
It was about a year later that Nashville consolidated, making its county population its official city population, and putting it safely out of reach.
Was it the shame and humiliation of being about the same size of Knoxville the factor that got Nashville to consolidate?