Can you imagine 83 schools in Blount County? That’s the number the county school board was overseeing in 1917 and several years thereafter.
Why so many? Families lived clustered in valleys, hemmed in by mountains with poor roads or none, with little if any means of transportation. Schools had to be where the children were; children couldn’t travel to the schools. Though poverty was pervasive, timber and stone were generally plentiful, and communities frequently built their own schools.
Thus did Sarah Hendrix write years ago in a college study she conducted about attempts made between 1917 and 1920 to design an adequate system of public education for Blount County. The state Legislature’s passage in 1915 of the compulsory school attendance law had turned the public’s attention to local education.
When she began her study, she discovered all board records from 1917 to 1920 had been destroyed. She turned to issues of The Southern Democrat, original name of this newspaper, and to interviews of A.L. Head, long-time county superintendent. Mr. Head’s memory must have been remarkable. Off the top of his head he could name some 79 of the 83 schools.
Those little schools, their enrollment averaging 60 but ranging from 25 to 200, didn’t have a great deal to offer. Students from eighth grade up could teach if they passed a certification examination. Eighth- and ninth-graders who taught were paid $40 a month. Individuals with 10 to 11 years of schooling were paid $50 to $60. Need one ask why preference was sometimes given to eighth- and ninth-graders?
The school year was generally for five months, often 3.5 months in winter and the six weeks in summer when parents least needed their children for farm work.
When schools opened in 1917, the county had $34,200 to pay the superintendent and 140 teachers and to operate 83 schools with about 5100 students. That money came from the county poll tax, the county one-mill tax dating to 1901, and the state’s general fund.
It was obvious more money was required. The superintendent and school board set about calling for a referendum of approval of a threemill tax, allowed by a 1916 constitutional amendment provided voters approved it.
Supt. Head published in The Democrat an article stating the advantages of the tax: The school terms could be two months longer; incidental fees could be discontinued; no more supplements would have to be raised.
In the election held Feb. 20, 1918, the tax was voted down by 200 votes.
As Sarah Hendrix wrote, “Consequently, the superintendent, members of his board, and ‘influential citizens’ hit the road with horse and buggy campaigning for support of the tax. …Additionally the board promised the citizens the county would assume responsibility for the cost of fuel if the tax bill was passed.”
It passed by a SLIM 21 votes.
Schools have come a long way since then. The county system stands high among county schools across the state, as the Oneonta system does among city schools.
Education is the answer for many of our woes and for those of the rest of the world.