Tensions Arise Over TVA Tower Deal
Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas objects to plan to move Central Office, questions county’s numbers.
by jesse fox mayshark • september 24, 2019
Knox County schools superintendent bob thomas addresses county commissioners carson dailey, larsen Jay and Justin Biggs.
While a possible deal for Knox County to take over the Tennessee Valley Authority’s vacant East Tower remains under negotiation, disagreements over the proposal broke into the open Monday night at a meeting of County Commission.
The school board could be in a pivotal position on the outcome of the proposed deal.
In sometimes testy exchanges with county commissioners, Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas said he hadn’t been asked for input into the deal, which would move school offices out of the historic Andrew Johnson Building on South Gay Street so the county could sell that building to a developer.
Thomas told commissioners he had concerns about the public accessibility of the TVA tower and that he would prefer to move school headquarters into a building of just two or three stories.
“I have never been asked, ‘Superintendent, what is your concern, what do you feel about this, what do you think is best?’” Thomas said. “I have never been asked that.”
Under the deal that was outlined by county officials earlier this month, the school offices would move into six floors of the 12-story TVA East Tower on Summit Hill Drive. The county has talked about subleasing the rest of the space; the University of Tennessee has expressed interest in possibly moving its system administrative offices into the building.
Thomas’ objections went beyond the ambivalent statements he made at a Sept. 11 joint meeting of Commission and school board, where county Finance Director Chris Caldwell provided an update on the negotiations. At that meeting, Thomas said he had not been in the loop as the plan was developed.
Monday night, he said flatly that he didn’t like the idea of moving from one high-rise building to another and would prefer what sounded more like a campus layout, where school operations currently scattered across a half-dozen sites could be consolidated.
“I’m not opposed to selling the A.J.,” Thomas said. “But if you’re going to do something, do something that’s going to better the school system. I don’t think this does.”
A Split Commission
Commissioners had mixed reactions to Thomas’ statements. Commissioner Larsen Jay, who distributed a handout to his colleagues breaking down the costs and benefits of the proposed deal, argued that the move would save a lot of money over the coming decades.
“We have an opportunity as Commission to save between $29 and $70 million, which is (the cost of) two to three more schools,” he said.
But Thomas questioned those numbers, saying no one had consulted with him about estimated costs to renovate and remain in the A.J. Building. He said that the TVA tower would be difficult for members of the public to access because of TVA security requirements, and visitors would still have to find parking downtown, as they do now to come to the A.J.
Some commissioners echoed his skepticism. Commissioner Charles Busler, who represents Halls and Powell, wondered if the county should look outside downtown for another area that could benefit from the economic impact of the school headquarters.
“We could move it into another community anywhere else and have that impact,” Busler said.
Even Commissioner Evelyn Gill, whose district includes downtown, seemed to second that idea.
“We really need to look at the fact that our downtown has already been developed,” she said. “Thank you, District 1 is one of the best districts we have. But the accessibility of this tower, it is not publicly accessible.”
Gill said she wanted to hear more about the school system’s questions and concerns, as well as opinions from the general public.
“At what point in two years of discussions, of 30 meetings with your staff, and four meetings directly engaged do you not make your opinion known in this process?” – County Commissioner Larsen Jay, addressing Superintendent Bob Thomas
Commissioner Michele Carringer said she thought the deal was being hurried. “All of a sudden we get some numbers of things, what, about a week and a half ago?” she said. “What is the big rush that we have to make this decision and vote on it by the end of October?”
Caldwell has said the county hopes to have an agreement ready by Sept. 30 that could be presented to the school board and Commission next month.
Other commissioners were warmer to the proposal. Commissioner Randy Smith said continuing to bolster downtown redevelopment was important to economic recruitment countywide. The redevelopment proposed for the A.J. Building would turn it into a 94-room boutique hotel with about 70 residential units on the top floors.
“Even though a company may locate out in the county,” Smith said, “they want to be someplace that there’s that type of downtown, that kind of energy, that kind of synergy. We have one of our greatest, most iconic buildings being used as a government office. I think it can do a lot for our downtown if we can get that back on the tax rolls.”
Smith added, “I think if we dig deep into these numbers, we’re going to see this is a pretty good sweetheart deal.”
School Board Sign-Off
Commissioners’ opinions may not matter if the proposal isn’t first approved by the school board. Although Knox County is the legal owner of the A.J. Building, county Law Director Bud Armstrong said the school system’s occupancy gives it “custody and control” of the property. He likened it to buildings like the old Knoxville High School, which had to be surplused by the school board before it could be sold for redevelopment.
At the Sept. 11 meeting, several school board members sounded positive about moving into the TVA tower. But that was before Thomas — who works for the board — voiced his objections. Whether the board is willing to override the concerns of its appointed superintendent now appears to be an important question in the deal’s viability.
Some commissioners seemed irritated Thomas had not raised his concerns earlier. The county has been negotiating with TVA for more than a year, and discussions about selling the A.J Building go back to 2005.
Jay said information from County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ office showed that more than 30 meetings about the deal included senior schools’ personnel, including four that Thomas personally attended.
“At what point in two years of discussions, of 30 meetings with your staff, and four meetings directly engaged do you not make your opinion known in this process?” Jay asked.
Thomas said he did voice misgivings about the TVA tower at one point. But, he said, “I’ve tried to get along. It’s been top-down — top-down meaning, ‘Hey, this is what you’re gonna do.’ The (school) board’s been totally left out of the conversation, as far as I know. That’s not right.”
Thomas mentioned the former Rule High School property between Lonsdale and Western Heights as a site that had been evaluated in the past and could accommodate multiple school functions.
But Smith said those evaluations had suggested a hefty price tag. “I think the total of that was like $40 million,” he said to Thomas. “You’re not advocating the school (system) going $40 million in debt, are you?”
The county estimates it would cost about $13.5 million to move the school system into the TVA tower and build out its office space, which would be partly offset by the $6 million sale of the A.J. Building.