Fentress Countians anxiously await vote on York Institute funding

by | March 27, 2013 12:00 am

A small community is anxiously awaiting the decision of the state’s House Subcommittee on Education.
A decision that, depending on the vote, could honor a nearly 80 year old promise — or leave hundreds of students without a school.
It’s the first time that a bill — introduced by Governor Bill Haslam — to transition the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute, a public high school, back to Fentress County has been formally proposed.
However, it’s not the first time that the state has discussed discontinuing funding for the high school, named in honor of World War I hero Sgt. Alvin C. York.
“In 2010, (then-Governor Phil) Bredesen left it out of the budget. You can’t leave it out of the budget because it was created by legislative act … they would have to vote it out,” Philip Hall, Fentress County School Board member, District Three, told the Expositor Monday. “They say it’s a transition but they don’t realize it’s closing down (the schools) … “We’re fixing to have 700 kids at York Institute and 600 kids at Pine Haven (Elementary School) with nowhere to go.”
Pine Haven Elementary School, located approximately one-half mile north of York Institute, could also be shut down if the bill passes.
According to Hall, the land that houses the elementary school is part of the York property — which spans more than 400 acres — and was leased by the state.
Hall says if the state shifts control of the property rights, both schools could be lost.
“The lease is void if the original property owners stake claim on that property — and, it will be their right to do so if the state goes back on their word,” Hall explained. “The land rights state that ‘we donate this property as long as it stays a state-funded school forever.’”
What would happen if ‘forever’ ended with the bill’s becoming law?
“If they (the state) goes back on that then the land defaults back on those families (that donated the land),” Hall explained.
In that case, the heirs to the property would have to be located. Some already have been located and contacted, Hall says.
“Some of them already have attorneys lined up stating that they are going to acquire the property due to this day and time, the commercial value of the property is too valuable for them just to donate,” he added.
In that case, some of Pine Haven and all of York Institute would be lost.
Hall adds that stocks and bonds donated to Sgt. York years ago, during a campaign to build the school, continue to roll money into the state and help fund the school.
“If it is not a state-funded school, we lose that revenue too,” Hall explained.
If approved, the bill would transition York Institute back to Fentress County by the 2016-2017 school year.
Sgt. York, a Fentress County native, received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, capturing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others during a battle in France during WWI.
Upon returning home from the war, York worked to establish a school to give rural children the opportunity to receive a high school education.
It operated as a private school until 1937 when financial problems related to the Great Depression led Sgt. York to transfer to the state of Tennessee.
The state continued to fund the school for the last 76 years as a living memorial to Sgt. York.
Now, with funding in jeopardy, the residents of the small rural community are rallying to garner support for their beloved school and for the legacy of a small-town war hero.
York Institute alumni have taken to social media sharing images of Sgt. York, banners of support and weighing in on the issue.
Fentress County shopkeepers changed their signs and marquees to read “We Support York” and other similar messages.
Residents are proudly wearing their purple and gold — the school’s colors — in support and are ringing the phones off the hook in Nashville with calls of support for the school and opposition to the proposed bill — slated to go before the house education subcommittee on Tuesday.
“It’s been a hard morning and we’re going to keep on working,” Hall, who was busy working the phones and social media Monday, said. “We’re just praying and hoping things will work out tomorrow.”
If the bill is voted down, Hall says the win would be a “win for York forever.”
“Someone could always try to bring it up (again) if they wanted to,” Hall said, regarding the funding issue. “But, if we can convincingly defeat this, this time, no one is going to have the guts to stand up and take on kids and veterans again like this.”
Tomorrow, members of the community will travel to Nashville to speak before the House Subcommittee on Education prior to the vote.
“Just say a little prayer,” he said.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Gerald McCormick and Sen. Mark Norris. Calls to Governor Bill Haslam’s office were not returned as of press time.

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