A local parent is leading an 11th-hour effort to try and prevent a school closure in Sullivan County.
This spring, Heather Imburgia’s son Declan finished sixth grade at the Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee, a sixth- to eighth-grade science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) school in Blountville.
This August, Declan will have to find another school to attend if the Sullivan County Board of Commissioners approves the school system’s budget that excludes funding for the academy, as passed by the school board this month.
Imburgia says she feels like there wasn’t enough time for discussion about the school closing, and a more open dialogue could have led to ways of funding the school.
“I get the complications of budgeting and of projected budgeting, I just think that the real fail here was no official opportunity for public discussion and for public action to create a plan to keep it open,” Imburgia said. “We would have had community support – we are having community support.”
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Last Saturday, Imburgia launched an online petition calling on the Sullivan County Board of Education to reverse its decision to close the academy, although she admits it’s a longshot.
“What we need is for the school board to reverse that budget, that way Innovation Academy is technically open, so that we can apply for grants and funding,” Imburgia said. “I know that that’s difficult and probably not likely, but that’s what we are asking for.”
So far, the petition has more than 400 signatures and two dozen comments from signees.
“Cutting IA only hurts our children,” wrote Catherine Ellis on the Change.org page about why she signed the petition. “We need to focus our investments on them, not strip them of these opportunities.”
“IA should be supported,” commented Nancy Pierce. “It should be the crown of the school system, not shut down.”
What the Innovation Academy also meant to the kids who attended it only adds to the frustration for parents like Imburgia, who said its students generally benefit more from the hands-on type of learning the school provided.
“A traditional classroom setting for these types of students hasn’t always been successful,” Imburgia said. “(The academy) is a real gem and could be an incredibly successful program.”
The budget for the academy, which was located at Sullivan Central Middle, was about $425,000, according to Imburgia, who said it enrolled 75 kids.
One school board member – Paul Robinson – voted against approving the budget.
School Board Chairman Randall Jones said the school’s closure was one of several cost-cutting moves by the school board to cope with less revenue due to declining enrollment in Sullivan County schools.
“The Innovation Academy Program was closed when the BOE (board of education) approved the GP (general purpose) budget on June 6, 2022. The closure was one of several cost saving cuts made when this budget was approved,” Jones wrote in an e-mail. “The 2022-2023 budget is approximately $4 million less than the 2021-2022 budget. These reductions were necessary in order to develop a balanced budget with the declining enrollment and the available revenues. The County Commission will vote on the total general purpose budget not on the individual line items.Without increased revenues, there is no money available to reinstitute any reductions in the GP budget approved by the BOE.”
The budget has not yet been approved by the Sullivan County Commission, but Mayor Richard Venable said Thursday that it will likely be approved sometime in early July at a full commission meeting. Venable noted cutting the school’s funding was not a decision made by the commission.