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Community grapples with flooding

Torrential rains in Loudon County caused school closures and blocked numerous roads.

The National Weather Services reports in Lenoir City and surrounding areas rainfall was 4.5-6 inches Wednesday and Thursday. Tim Doyle, meteorologist, said rainfall in Lenoir City reached 5.41 inches, while just three miles away it was 5.91 inches.

A NWS advisory for Monday and Tuesday showed rainfall could be an additional 1-2 inches, with another inch possible today.

“We’ve had these slow-moving systems,” Doyle said Monday. “We had a slow-moving system come through Tuesday, kind of Wednesday, Thursday last week, and then we’re having another one today and it’s going to move very slowly through the next three days and not move out until Thursday morning, so it’s just a slow (system).

“Instead of moving and hitting a little bit of rain for where the front comes through and then a little bit afterward and they last a 12-hour period, we’re getting it lasting 24-hour periods and ... then the warmer temperatures there’s more moisture available so we’re getting heavy rain amounts with the warm temperatures,” he added. “That’s kind of what happened last week and then again this week.”

Doyle cautions more risk of flooding.

“Just because we got so much last week it’d be more susceptible with flooding with smaller amounts this week,” he said. “It’s harder to tell how much flooding is going to happen with these smaller rainfall amounts, but as long as we’re getting systems this close together there’s going to be that risk of flooding.”

Administrators at Loudon County and Lenoir City schools exercised caution and cancelled classes Thursday and Friday. On Monday evening, directors made that call again for Tuesday.

“Based on information from the weather service, we are expected to receive up to three more inches of rain between 2 a.m. and noon (Tuesday) with the heaviest rain occurring around 6 a.m. when we are rolling buses,” Michael Garren, county director of schools, said in an email correspondence. “After evaluating this information we were provided and current conditions, I plan to keep the safety of our students as my first priority and feel this is the safest decision given the information we have been provided.”

Loudon County Schools has now used seven of its 10 days set aside for inclement weather. Lenoir City Schools has used five of its nine days for weather.

“If we were to exhaust all days, then we would need to look at our calendar and make some choices of how to make up the time,” Jeanne Barker, city director of schools, said in an email correspondence. “We are not to the point of having that conversation at this time.”

Jimmy Davis, Loudon County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy, said call volume was high last week and deputies continued checking roads. There were a couple of wrecks due to hydroplaning and the weather, but overall it could have been worse, he said.

“We don’t have the damage that we believe, having to do any rescues,” Davis said. “We had one rescue, I believe it was last Wednesday night late, down around the campground off Sweetwater (exit). ... The KOA campground had a gentleman where the water had risen and he was kind of trapped on his truck for a little while and ... that rescue was successful and got him to safety.”

Davis is being watchful with more rain in the forecast.

“Been in touch with director of schools Mr. Garren and keeping an eye on it and making sure we keep them abreast and informed of all the areas of concern,” he said.

Loudon County Road Superintendent Eddie Simpson’s crews were busy Thursday. Crews have already logged about 40 hours of overtime.

“We had a lot of roads we had to block off,” Simpson said Friday. “We didn’t have to close but three or four, but we had some we had to block off. We had one, Watkins Road, we had to close it all the way down because it washed it out. ... We had it opened back up about 3 o’clock (Thursday) afternoon. We had several, about everywhere, if it’s ever flooded before it flooded this time.”

Simpson estimated Friday about 80 percent of the flooding had receded and roads were reopened.

“I think probably the rainfall and the flooding was about the same,” Simpson said. “We did not have any trees down this time, we had very little wind, it was just hard rain. So we had very few trees down, I think we had two trees down the entire time, and last year I think what we had most of was the trees were falling over because they were so saturated.

“With a little bit of wind to it and it really caused havoc to us, but this time we didn’t have the wind and we just had a lot of rain,” he added.

County preps for big celebration

With Loudon County in its 150th year of existence, big things are being planned to ensure residents both young and old can celebrate the special occasion.

Plans for the county’s sesquicentennial year got underway last year and since then Loudon County Commission has tasked a committee of 10 to put together a celebration.

“It’s a big milestone,” Bo Carey, committee member, said. “The county has such rich history and unique history and its 150 years is great. Obviously the geographic area has a much longer history. We could be highlighting Civil War or Native American history or the pioneer settlers of the Loudon, Lenoir City area, but we chose not to do that. We chose to focus on the 150 years that we’ve been a county, and so those are for other times to celebrate and to educate people on that.”

The most notable scheduled event is 10 a.m. June 20 in the Loudon County Courthouse lawn when a time capsule that’s been underground since 1970 will be unearthed for viewing. A tentative alternative location will be Loudon High School auditorium if needed, Carey said.

A new 50-year capsule will be put in the ground in its place.

Plans are to have special envelopes for sale no later than April for $5. The envelopes will be 9 inch by 12 inch with archival paper in hopes it will resist the elements, Carey said.

“As a 9 by 12 it’s suitable for photos and things like this, family photos, whatever,” Carey said. “We’ll begin accepting the $5 at the libraries. Each library will have these. That’s not to say we won’t distribute some in other places, particularly to the schools. Students who might be around 50 years in 2070 when it comes out of the ground, it’d be great to have them put items in there.”

Although the committee has not actively advertised the envelopes yet, interest level is high, Ruth McQueen, committee member, said.

“People just in conversation people are very excited and looking forward to putting a piece of history in,” McQueen said. “Some of you are young enough you can be here in 50 years when they open it and see the excitement from next time, but the original time capsule I think many people think it’s a small box, that isn’t exactly true. It is actually a casket in a vault and we anticipate putting (one) back.”

McQueen said McGill-Click Funeral Home will provide a new casket and Loudon Funeral Home will provide tents and chairs for the day of celebration.

Plans are to invite high-schoolers from the class of 1970, as well as the class of 2020, local officials and Harvey Sproul and Paul Brakebill, the two remaining members of the committee who helped with the first time capsule, Carey said.

At that time, Sproul served as county judge, or county mayor, and Brakebill was general chairman of the centennial committee, Carey said.

“In 1970 we put on a big shindig and certainly think that when the 50th comes around that we should have a big celebration also,” Sproul said. “One of the things that I made a point of back then was when my committee was working on the time capsule to open the time capsule, instead of having one on the 100th birthday, I said, ‘I tell you what. Why don’t you all think about making this time capsule for 50 years and maybe I’ll be here and I can help celebrate it even then? I won’t make it until 100.’ They said, ‘OK’.”

He jokingly said he couldn’t remember what was placed in the time capsule.

The day will also include other activities that are not being led by the committee, Carey said.

“In the afternoon we’re encouraging other clubs and organizations to have everything from we know we’ll have music, we intend to have 1970s music playing,” Carey said. “We are inviting choral groups, choirs from the different communities.”

McQueen is “terribly proud” of the all-volunteer effort.

“Everybody’s energies have all been volunteer and not one penny of any taxpayer funds have been expended,” McQueen said. “We’ve had some very generous groups, like the Loudon County Historical Society and the Loudon (County) Chamber, some of the local businesses. People are very generous and gracious to be a part of this special year that we’re having in Loudon County.”

Yearlong effortAlthough June 20 will serve as a special occasion, committee members are working to ensure there are multiple activities planned throughout the year to engage the community.

“One of the things we want to do is school systems need time to plan and because the schools are not open during the summer when we have the big celebration we want to come back in the fall and include some things there,” Carey said. “We want to do some cold weather events that can be done inside like at theaters or possibly at the visitors bureau or schools.”

Carey said the LHS graphics department with teacher Kris Peterson has assisted with creating a coloring book showcasing 26 significant sites throughout the county.

“They are historic sites that not only will allow the students to color in a book, but also to read about the history of key locations and buildings in this county,” Carey said. “So that’s a commemorative coloring book edition. We know we’re going to distribute a lot of them through the libraries.”

Hopes are to have the books ready by National Library Week April 19-25, he said. The committee will also reach out to the Loudon County Education Foundation for essay contests for students.

“We are going to ask students to in some of the schools that have either theatrical or choral departments or art departments, we’re going to ask them to do some things in the fall, to be announced,” he said. “We’ve got a number of pretty good ideas, but we’re going to challenge them to see what they want to do. That’s exciting. Some of the history teachers have expressed interest in doing something different at that time.”

The hope is by getting the students involved now it will “set the stage” for the county’s 200th anniversary, Carey said.

“They are the ones who would expect to carry that out,” Carey said. “I myself was the class of 1970, the year of the centennial celebration, and I observed and thought it was pretty neat back then. Of course, I wasn’t as interested in history at that time and now I feel it’s almost an obligation and I think the other (committee) members feel that way that we need to highlight.”

Offering hands-on learning

Loudon High School is getting students ready for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry.

Although Brian Thompson in is his first year teaching, he brings 18 years of experience in the HVAC industry. He has 22 students in the class this semester.

“Basically, I just kind of open their eyes to what is out there in the HVAC industry,” Thompson said. “Different types of jobs within the industry that they can get. Careers they could make out of it, the type of money they could make in it, and then just get them interested in it. HVAC is kind of unique because I can do electrical, plumbing and fabrication and building automation stuff. They get to see a lot of different trades, not just HVAC. You have to be kind of be a jack-of-all trades, so to speak, to do HVAC.”

The class features 40 percent book work and 60 percent hands-on experience, which Thompson believes is invaluable for students who take the elective. The class is broken into three groups, with beginners starting in HVAC Core. Students then progress to HVAC 1 and HVAC 2.

“The hands-on is invaluable,” he said. “The kids that go through this program when they get out of high school have got such a leg up on people who ... just try to get in the field. I mean they already have their certification plus they already know all the basics of the trade. ... A typical day we’ll spend 20-25 minutes in the classroom going over electrical diagrams, refrigeration, that type of stuff, whatever we’re going to do that day. The remainder 45 minutes to an hour we’re in the actual shop with hands-on doing what we’re talking about.”

Thompson’s 19 students from last semester have since gained certification for free thanks to a grant the school district received. Thompson hopes that will be the same this semester.

LHS Principal Scott MacKintosh sees the possibilities.

“It’s because it’s something that kids can come out immediately, kids that may or may not be — we’ve got college-bound kids that also have HVAC certifications, but most of them are kids that aren’t interested of going into college at least right off the bat, and we have the capability here of essentially having certification to maintain and work on HVAC systems coming right out of high school,” MacKintosh said. “Brian’s created some partnerships with so many different companies that these kids can (go to) with his who-you-know part of it and then they get in there and it’s what they know. We’ve got a great opportunity for the kids to become marketable right out of high school and make a lot of money doing it.”

Three businesses — Del-Air Mechanical, HCS Mechanical and Loudon Mechanical Services — are “extremely interested” in students’ progress, Thompson said. Del-Air even donated a new HVAC unit for students to work on in class.

Thompson invites employees of those businesses to “come in the classroom and look at what we have and what training that I’m doing and give me advice on, ‘Hey, yeah, this is good. You could do this differently. You could add this to your program’.”

LHS formerly had an HVAC class, but MacKintosh believes Thompson has helped build stronger bonds in the community.

“I don’t think that we’ve had the partnerships in the past that we do now,” MacKintosh said. “Along with his expertise, he has brought the partnerships that will make this ongoing and a place where kids can go. They’re building those relationships right now with those companies and those companies with them to where it’s just, ‘We want you, you and you. How much do you want? We’re offering this. How much would you take?’ That type of thing.”

Osvaldo Mora and Logan Hoppel gained certification last semester. Both are back in the class this semester.

“I mean it’s always good to know more and it’s fun learning about new things,” Mora said.

Hoppel agreed, adding he found the course “really interesting.”

Even if students don’t go into the industry, MacKintosh hopes they can utilize their knowledge.

“If I’ve got a little bit of background knowledge on it I’d feel a little bit more powerful as a consumer,” he said.

“And the students will have a good, basic knowledge of HVAC systems when they get out,” Thompson added. “Like now, all of the first 19 I know could replace a thermostat in a home, they could use a torch and braze copper. I mean they’ve done all that.”

County BOE seeks pay raises

Loudon County Board of Education will look to approve Thursday its 2020-21 budget that puts a focus on teacher pay raises.

As proposed, total revenue for Loudon County Schools would be about $39 million with total expenditures at $42 million.

“Basically what we’ve done, if you remember last year we had to make some significant cuts of the budget with personnel specifically,” Michael Garren, director of schools, said. “So what I did this year, we’re operating off of the current budget that we have right now that was approved. The only thing I did different to it was I put in 4 percent for our teachers and staff.”

Other highlights include a $21,000 increase for bus costs based on the district’s bus contract, one additional teacher for North Middle School, $10,000 more for utilities and $16,000 more in supplies that the county cut last year, Garren said. There is no funding for an assistant director.

NMS has the largest student population of the nine schools at 780, with Eaton Elementary and Loudon High schools at 675 and 669, respectively.

Garren described the budget as “laser focused on raises for staff since we were unable to give raises last year. That’s our main focus. I didn’t want to create a budget that had a lot of extra things in it that drew away from the need to give our teachers raises.”

The expectation is that the BOE ask the county for $1.4 million in new money to help fund the budget. The school system could get $300,000-$400,000 in Basic Education Program funding from the state this year.

“If we don’t receive any additional funding, we will pretty much deplete our fund balance to where we’re at the minimum operating level, which will cause us issues going on into the next budget cycle if we don’t get new funds,” Garren said.

The anticipated ending fund balance is $1.5 million, which is a reduction of $3.1 million.

“I think anytime that you ask for additional funds it’s a challenge regardless of who’s asking for an increase,” Brian Brown, BOE member, said. “Anytime you present to commission with an increase there’s always a challenge there. I think that they’ve done a good job in putting together a business case in supporting that.”

Bobby Johnson Jr., BOE member, hopes the county at least breaks the $1.4 million into half over the next couple years.

“I want them to understand though we hadn’t been able to accomplish this stuff without them,” Johnson said. “They’ve been a part of this as much as we have. We work pretty good together, and I feel like Mike has definitely pushed that out there, that ‘we’ attitude, is all of us.”

If approved, Garren will then present the budget to the Loudon County budget committee.

“The teachers and the parapros, all the staff, are the backbone of the system and they’re what makes us successful,” Garren said. “That’s one thing that you’ll see in the presentation is if you look return on investment for a business, we’re one of three systems in the state — us, Maryville city and Alamo city — that have been exemplary for three years in a row. So with the amount of money that we’ve got, that’s a pretty good return on investment for us to be able to perform at that level.

“We need to keep the teachers that we have to keep performing at that level and to keep them, you’ve got to give them raises,” he added. “When other people around us are given raises like last year and we don’t, then that sends a message to our staff that we don’t want to send.”