The Oak Ridge Board of Education on Monday approved, in the first of two votes, a policy change that would require the superintendent and principals to live in Oak Ridge.
Assistant principals, the executive director of school leadership, and the executive director of teaching and learning would be required to live in Oak Ridge if they are relocating to the region after being hired by Oak Ridge Schools. This would not apply to new administrators in those positions who already live in adjacent counties, such as Knox County.
The policy change would reduce the number of administrative positions with a residency requirement. The current policy requires the superintendent, executive director of school leadership, executive director of teaching and learning, director of pupil services, principals, and assistant principals to live in Oak Ridge “to be thoroughly familiar with the community and to be available beyond the regular day.”
But the current policy is suspected of reducing the number of candidates who apply for jobs at Oak Ridge Schools, according to administrators.
Under the proposed policy change, new administrators affected by the policy could appeal to the superintendent and school board if they have extenuating circumstances that prevent them from living in Oak Ridge. That could apply, for example, if an administrator has trouble finding a home here, said Bruce Lay, Oak Ridge Schools executive director of school leadership.
The school board approved the policy change in a 4-1 vote on Monday. BOE member Erin Webb cast the only “no” vote against the policy change.
“I would like to see vice principals added to the list of administrators required to live in Oak Ridge,” Webb said in an emailed response to questions on Thursday. “The parents I have personally spoken to in the past few weeks, all with children school age and younger, want the school (administrators) to live in Oak Ridge. Yes, these parents want and expect the best administrators we can find, but they also expect these leaders to be active and personally invested in the community.”
Some residents agreed that vice principals should live in Oak Ridge, but others, including school board member Laura McLean, did not think that the policy change should apply to assistant principals. She wants the best applicants, even if they live somewhere like Hardin Valley, McLean said. There was some discussion at the meeting that vice principals might not always stay in their positions for a long time, sometimes for as short as a year.
The school board still has to approve the change on second and final reading. That vote will presumably occur in September.
Oak Ridge is reportedly the only district of those polled in Tennessee that has a residency requirement for positions other than superintendent.
The public reaction to the proposed policy change has been mixed. Some people say Oak Ridge Schools should hire the best applicants and they don’t care where employees live as long as their children receive a good education. But others say it sends the wrong message to have administrators helping to lead Oak Ridge Schools while living outside the community. Some city officials, including Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, have objected to changing the current policy.
“It compromises years of efforts by community organizations and the city to encourage people to live in Oak Ridge,” Gooch said in an August 22 letter to Keys Fillauer, BOE chair. “For the past five years, Council and BOE have continually promoted Oak Ridge as a great place to live, invest, and work, and our efforts have been successful. The proposed change will threaten that momentum.”
During an August 5 meeting, Lay told the school board that Oak Ridge Schools is not getting the applicants that officials would expect, especially given the system’s reputation and salaries. The residency policy could be having an effect, Lay said.
It’s “almost unheard of” for a Knox County principal to apply in Oak Ridge because they don’t want to move, Lay said. That’s resulting in a smaller applicant pool, he said.
An earlier version of the policy change passed 3-2 on first reading during the August 5 meeting. That earlier proposed policy change would have required the superintendent to live in Oak Ridge, and principals would have had to live in Oak Ridge, Anderson County, or any county adjacent to Anderson County.
A proposed amendment by BOE member Angi Agle considered during that meeting would have required principals to live in Oak Ridge. But the proposed amendment failed in a 2-3 vote. Agle and Webb voted for the amendment and then against the policy change without the amendment.
The newer policy change considered Monday, August 26, after much public discussion, had to be considered on first reading because it had significant district-wide changes compared to the earlier version of the policy change considered August 5. Among the revisions were requiring principals to live in Oak Ridge—rather than in the city, the county, or an adjacent county—and requiring assistant principals, the executive director of school leadership, and the executive director of teaching and learning to live here, if they are relocating to the region.
Some city officials, including Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn, said the changes made between the August 5 and August 26 meetings improved the proposed policy change.
On Monday, Fillauer said he would like every teacher, administrator, police officer, firefighter—and others—to live in Oak Ridge.
“But that’s not reality in today’s world,” he said.
Five years ago, it was hard to find qualified candidates, especially for administrative positions, in part because of the city’s housing, Fillauer said.
But that’s changed, he said, and school attendance numbers are up.
Among the changes in the past five years: The former Oak Ridge Mall has been redeveloped as Main Street Oak Ridge—a relative lack of retail had been one of the primary concerns about Oak Ridge—and many new businesses and restaurants have opened. Also, U.S. Department of Energy budgets are up—Oak Ridge has several major DOE sites—and the number of housing starts is reported to have increased, including at large residential developments.
Oak Ridge has fought a decades-long battle to increase the number of people living in the city, especially among employees at DOE sites, who usually live elsewhere.
On Monday, Agle provided several reasons that administrators should live in Oak Ridge. Among them, she said, were that Oak Ridge residents pay their salaries, so they should live here. (Gooch said Oak Ridgers fund the school system at a record level, exceeding any other system in East Tennessee and most across the state.) It’s important for administrators to be part of the community, Agle said, and those who don’t want to move may not want the job very much.
Offering another perspective, BOE member Ben Stephens advocated for maximizing the pool of qualified applicants and for a more diverse pool of candidates. He said he doesn’t want to put up a “hard, fast wall,” and he wondered how many people had been discouraged from applying to Oak Ridge Schools because of the residency requirement. Stephens suggested that different people could have different reasons for why they don’t live here. There is a major business leader who doesn’t live in Oak Ridge because his son wrestles and the city doesn’t have a wrestling team, Stephens said.
“I don’t think we want to hamstring ourselves,” he said during the August 5 meeting.
Like the school system, the City of Oak Ridge has had a residency requirement. Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said the city has 12 senior positions, and 11 of those employees live in the city. One is “grandfathered in,” Watson told the BOE on Monday.
City officials who talked to the school board, including Council member Jim Dodson, said it is important for school’s “upper management” to be part of Oak Ridge, or they opposed the proposed reduction in the number of positions that would have a residency requirement.
“I am strongly opposed to a change in the residency requirement,” Gooch said. “In my opinion, it is ill-advised and ill-timed.”
The residency requirement would continue to say that any current employee who requests and receives a transfer to a full-time administrative position would be subject to the policy, and the superintendent could give a new hire up to one year to move into the city.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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