Behind the Proposal for a School at the L&N

Momentum gathers for a high-tech academy, but big questions remain

Okay, let's clear up a few things about this proposal for a new magnet high school at the old L&N Station:

— First, there is not yet (quite) an actual proposal for a new magnet high school at the old L&N Station.

— Second, if and when that proposal is presented and approved by a battery of local governmental bodies, there still remain the small matters of A.) fixing up the building, B.) hiring a principal and staff, and C.) enrolling an initial contingent of up to 300 students.

— And third, yes, the Knox County school system thinks it is possible to do all of this in time to open the school next August.

"It is a lot to do in a short period of time," concedes Superintendent Jim McIntyre. "But it seems like all the elements are in place."

The appeal of the concept is not hard to grasp: a school that would draw students from across Knox County with a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM subjects, in current educational jargon), housed in a widely loved but underutilized 105-year-old building. But the plan is still an earlier stage than it may have appeared at the splashy news conference co-hosted Oct. 29 by McIntyre, Mayor Bill Haslam, County Mayor Tim Burchett, and school board Chairwoman Indya Kincannon.

For one thing, the school system has not yet completed a feasibility study to estimate how much it would cost to retrofit the picturesque brick building and its neighboring depot for even "nontraditional" classrooms and support space. McIntyre says preliminary walk-throughs made it seem like a viable idea. But the school system has only about $2 million available in start-up money through the Race to the Top federal funding that Tennessee was awarded this year. (The state's Race to the Top proposal calls for "at least two" STEM academies in Tennessee.) There is no money for a new STEM school in the school board's current capital plan.

"If we come back and say it's going to cost $5- or $10 million to renovate this building and make it a functional school, then it's obviously much less attractive," McIntyre says.

Although the school board approved the idea of STEM magnet school in an 8-1 vote last week, anything that needed capital funding would almost certainly be more contentious. The board is mired in a dispute with County Commission over funding for Carter Elementary School—the board has planned for a $5 million renovation, while some commissioners would like to see an entirely new building, at an estimated cost of $13 million.

McIntyre says a comprehensive assessment and cost estimate should be ready for the board by its Dec. 1 meeting. In the meantime, though, Knoxville City Council will have to consider Haslam's proposal for the school's unusual funding structure.

The L&N, which has about 50,000 square feet combined in the main building and the depot (recently vacated by the Butcher Shop restaurant), is privately owned. But its landlord, Alex Harkness, is still paying off a lien to the city for renovations done in the 1980s under a federal program for urban redevelopment. Under a proposal worked up by the city, Harkness would renegotiate his payments to $200,000 a year for 20 years. The city would then cycle that money to the school system, which would contribute another $225,000 a year to make up the total estimated $425,000-a-year cost of leasing and operating the space. (That figure does not include salaries, since positions would be relocated from elsewhere in the system depending on how many students the school attracted.)

At the end of 20 years, the school system would take ownership of the buildings, if they were still being used for a school. Otherwise, ownership would revert to the city. City Council is expected to take up both the rent-to-own deal and the agreement to funnel the money to the school system at its meeting on Tuesday.

The L&N was not on the school system's original list of possible STEM school sites. Bill Lyons, the city's senior director of policy and communications, says the idea came after school officials approached the city in September about possibly using the old Knoxville Convention and Exposition Center, adjacent to the Holiday Inn. But discussion soon turned to the elegant train station next door. City officials and Harkness have pondered various long-term uses for the building over the years. It is currently partly occupied by about 10 small businesses. When Knox County was considering a new downtown library under the administration of former Mayor Mike Ragsdale, the L&N was one of the properties it looked at.

Although the magnet school would theoretically attract students from across the county, not just within city limits, Lyons says, "We're very happy with supporting the school system as something the city just should do."

Kincannon, the school board head, acknowledges the STEM academy would look and function differently than any other Knox County high school. Among other things, a prospective partnership with the University of Tennessee would place some students at the UT Knoxville campus at least part of the time. (Proximity to UT, a short walk across the World's Fair Park, is a major attraction of the L&N site.) "I think there'll be significant demand to go to this school from a variety of families around the county," Kincannon says.

But the timeline to get it up and running by next fall is short. To make that happen, McIntyre says the school board would have to settle on a site and hire a principal by the end of the year. The principal position was posted the day after the L&N news conference, and he says there are already many applicants. The principal would then work with Central Office staff in recruiting both students and teachers, as well as shaping a specific curriculum. The goal would be to open with just 9th- and 10th-graders, with 150 to 200 students per grade, and add one grade level a year for the next two years.

And what about the building's existing tenants? That, Lyons says, depends on their arrangements with Harkness.

Chuck Morris, head of Morris Creative Group, has housed his design and marketing business at the L&N since 1997. Although he received a few days' notice before the press conference last month, he says, "No one's come to us specifically to say, ‘Hey, this is a go. Get ready to get out of here.'" Still, he is looking. He estimates it might double his rent to try to move his five-person shop elsewhere in downtown.

Morris says no one he's talked to in the building is necessarily against the idea of a school there, but there are concerns about the broader impact on the surroundings. "The negative things I've heard about it relate mostly to the loss of the World's Fair Park as a public park," he says. "Suddenly it's a playground to 500 kids."

Lyons says the park will remain open to the public, and adds, "Lots of kids hanging out in the park, that sounds okay to me."

The architecture firm Brewer Ingram Fuller has been housed at the L&N since 1987. Founding partner Lee Ingram says, "Last year it was the library, this year it's the STEM school. I think the writing's on the wall that the building owner's looking for a long-term, full-building tenant." He says he doesn't know how much credence to give the STEM proposal, but says, "We're kind of making plans" to vacate the space.

McIntyre acknowledges that turning the L&N into a school would require some creative thinking. For example, the depot might be a good space for science labs, because of the water and gas hook-ups left from its life as a restaurant. Fire marshals and historic preservation officials are being consulted to make sure a school could meet all of their requirements. (The L&N has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982.) But if it works, McIntyre thinks it could be a showcase for both the school system and the city.

"I kind of like the irony of a school of the future in such a historic building," he says.