Lincoln County Schools: overcrowding, staffing remain biggest issues as students return to class

WAFF's Megan Plotka reporting
Published: Aug. 1, 2023 at 10:12 AM CDT
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LINCOLN Co., Tenn. (WAFF) - Lincoln County students return to class on Tuesday for the 2023-2024 school year. Many students find themselves in classrooms that are bursting at the seams.

Children in southern Tennessee are seeing some of the negative consequences of the growth in north Alabama. Lincoln County Schools Director of Schools Bill Heath says four out of five kindergarten through eighth-grade schools are at or over core capacity.

Heath says he wants to expand one school to help alleviate the problem. He says the district plans on building a new facility on Highland Rim Elementary School’s campus for fifth through eighth graders while renovating the existing facility.

“We’ll have to move some pickup lines and put more parking lots in different places but at the end of the day we’ll be able to have two functioning campuses right there,” explains Heath.

He says the project is on pause for the time being because they are waiting for funding from the county but commissioners have not voted on this year’s budget yet. He says once the project is approved, it will take approximately two years to build.

Space is not the only concern for the fast-growing school district as it needs to be fully staffed.

“This year it seems like we’ve been able to turn a curve and not have near as many openings and be able to fill the openings in a timely manner, that’s probably been the biggest thing,” says Heath.

Heath says hiring has gotten easier in the past year but there are still some spots that need to be filled.

Only one certified teacher position was open as district leaders prepared to start the school year. Heath attributes this to the pending increase in salaries for this school year. Teachers see a 2% annual raise. This year the district is set to give a 5% raise to everyone who works for the district, including support staff like the much-needed bus drivers. District leaders are still searching for people to bring students to school. They needed ten bus drivers a week before school started.

The bus drivers will have to run double routes while they’re understaffed, meaning one bus driver will have to pick up some students long before school starts so they can run a second route and bring that round of students to school on time.

“In some of our schools, we’re able to have someone run an early route,” explains Heath. “When they finish that route, they turn around and run another route. Our school system is a county school system, so we don’t have any short routes. All of our routes are out in the rural communities and it’s quite a distance from house to house and so it takes a while. We’re planning on nine or 10 drivers running double rounds in the morning and in the afternoon, which the inconvenience for parents and kids is if you’re riding a bus that’s having to double route, somebody’s going to be picked up in the mornings a lot earlier than they would if we had somebody else driving that route and then the same thing in the afternoon, somebody’s going to get home a lot later than they would if we didn’t have to run a double route.”

Bus drivers are paid per route and Heath says that rate has a pending raise as well. These raises are stalled in the Lincoln County Commission as they try to agree on a budget.

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