When Gerald Sensabaugh accepted the head football coaching job at David Crockett High School, he went there with the intention of creating change — not just on the field, but cultural change as well.
As the 2017-18 school year proceeds in its first semester, Sensabaugh said he’s seen plenty of things that need changing, and he’s made his concerns known through social media.
Sensabaugh set off a firestorm of comments Friday morning with a post that began, “The real problem in Washington County” and launched into his shock during a visit to Jonesborough Elementary School to surprise a kid who wanted to meet him after a recent game.
“As I got escorted to his class I noticed that classrooms were divided by partitions instead of walls,” Sensabaugh’s post stated. “Kids could literally hear other classroom noise and I could see how kids would not be able to focus. It’s pretty much an open floor plan with few walls.”
His observation of the school’s physical layout is correct. Jonesborough Elementary, built in the 1960s, was designed as an open-concept school for collaborative learning. At least one county official agreed with Sensabaugh’s assessment, but said the coach may not understand how much work is going on to rectify the qualities lacking in Washington County’s educational facilities.
“I think he just needs to understand there is a tremendous amount being invested in this county right now,” County Mayor Dan Eldridge said Monday, adding that Sensabaugh’s public stance was “premature,” and “uninformed.”
“He texted me Friday and asked me about the Jonesborough situation,” and Eldridge replied to Sensabaugh about the current facilities updates on tap, including the new Boones Creek school under construction. Eldridge said he invited Sensabaugh to lunch and plans to have further conversation with the coach about facility plans.
Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said Sensabaugh’s comments concerned her because she said they were not accurate.
“The current County Commission has demonstrated its commitment to funding necessary improvements to county school facilities by adopting a 40-cent property tax increase in 2016, 27 cents of which goes to school capital projects,” Halliburton said in a written statement after a request for an interview.
“More specifically, the current County Commission has committed approximately $20.75 million toward the renovation of Jonesborough Elementary into a new Jonesborough K-8 School and the renovation of Jonesborough Middle into a new academic magnet school for Washington County,” Halliburton said. “These renovations address the concerns raised by Coach Sensabaugh.”
In a phone interview Monday, Sensabaugh said he had never seen the situation under which Jonesborough Elementary operates. He said even the poorest schools he’s visited in the country have better learning environments than Jonesborough’s.
“I’ve never seen kids trying to learn in the learning environment I saw at Jonesborough Elementary School,” he said. “I was really shocked.”
And while he joined Crockett as the head football coach, Sensabaugh said he’s not just about football. In fact, Sensabaugh said he’s more concerned with kids being successful educationally, and in life, than football.
“My position is football is a tool that taught me a lot of life lessons,” Sensabaugh said. Those life lessons, and his high school and college football experiences, led him to the NFL where he played four years for the Jacksonville Jaguars and four years for the Dallas Cowboys. Still, he doesn’t see the sport as the be-all, end-all but as a place for kids to apply lessons they learn in school. Focus, he said is a key part of that, and he doesn’t see how Jonesborough’s students focus in the current learning environment.
“It’s all about the kids,” he said. “My biggest thing for my team is focus, fight and finish. I have high school kids trying to play football and I can’t get them to focus. Then I learn they went to Jonesborough Elementary School and I understand why. My whole program is not about winning games. It’s about giving the kids tools to be successful in life. I’m just calling it like I see it. I have this platform and nobody is going to hush me.”
Another of Sensabaugh’s concerns came from an observation at Crockett of inmates working on school grounds during school hours. He said inmates were painting the football stadium stands while he held practice, which made him feel uncomfortable and protective of the team.
“I have never seen a prison inmate when I was part of the learning environment,” as a student or while visiting schools across the nation, he said.
Halliburton said Sensabaugh never brought his concerns about inmate labor on school property to her attention or to the principal.
“These inmates are properly supervised at all times, and I am not aware of any prior incidents or issues that would cause concern for the safety of our students,” she said. “The inmate work program saves the school system and all county taxpayers a significant amount of money each year, enabling the school system to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Sensabaugh’s comments quickly drew reaction as dozens of people jumped into the conversation to relay their own concerns and experiences. One woman said she was a student at Crockett in 2005 and inmates whistled at her and other girls. Some girls like the attention, she said, but to her it was unwelcome. The inmates “whistle or yell at us girls walking to our cars or to the annex buildings in back. I always noticed most of the prisoners (were) young ... so a lot of 16-17-year-old girls get flattered by it,” the woman said in her comment.
Leighta Laitinen, Washington County Sheriff’s Office chief operations officer, defended the program and its effectiveness for inmates and the county.
“The inmates assigned to the inmate work detail are pre-screened before being assigned to work in a school zone,” Laitinen said. “The inmates are closely supervised while on the schools campus. The inmates do not have interaction with students. This program has proven to be very successful over many years providing valuable services to the Washington County School System.”
Sensabaugh said he’s contacted county commissioners to express his concerns. Some were willing to listen, but at least one hung up the phone on him. The coach said he just wants to see something get done instead of hearing there is a plan in place.
“The major issue is that they are about 25 years behind,” Sensabaugh said. “These conditions will still be the same for the next how many years? Plans are nothing but plans. There needs to be actions. I don't see actions taking place, just talk about plans that are 25 years past due. That's my problem with the system. No urgency. That's another one of my big words for my team — urgency. They are urgent when building other things but when it comes to the school system, (there’s) no urgency. Talk is talk. Walk the walk.
“They sat back and let everything deteriorate. Instead of maintaining and constantly upgrading. They kicked their feet up and allowed it to get to $20 million and complain that they don't have the money for it. We need a new group in there with a constant change mentality for the better tomorrows. In two to three years is when they are going to start the school for Jonesborough Elementary. It will be 2020 then, and the school will just start going under construction. So these kids are about to sit separated by partition walls for the next four years at least. Urgency is not a part of Washington County.”
Sensabaugh said he’s proud to be part of the Crockett community and wants to have a positive effect, but he also wants to see more action than talk. He said it might be necessary for the state to step in to see that something gets done.
“Something needs to force them to move faster,” Sensabaugh said. “If we stay quiet and let them move at their own pace it will become forgotten. That is their strategy, They will forget about it, then the people become use to it. Those kids see nothing wrong with that setup. Probably most of the parents don't either because that's all they know. It's an old mentality that does not accept rapid change. I understand that it can't happen overnight. But this should have been done 25 years ago. My question: What have they been doing for the last 25 years?”
Eldridge said the county is moving in the right direction.
“I very much know what he’s talking about,” Eldridge said. “I know they are effectively,” teaching kids at Jonesborough. But is that the best environment? Absolutely not. The County Commission has already allocated $20 million to renovate Jonesborough Elementary ... the architect is designing it as we speak.”
Sensabaugh said he feels like he’s already had a positive impact on his players because their grades are improving. In another Facebook post, Sensabaugh expressed his love for the kids he coaches.
“When we focus, our defense knows we can play with the best. With all that said I would like to thank our kids for supporting my vision for this team both on and off the field because I run a very disciplined program. Every player you see out there on Friday nights for our team, I can assure you, they are working and striving to be the best student athlete they can be. This program is not about winning football games, It's about winning at life.”
Halliburton said she’s offered to meet with Sensabaugh to discuss his concerns, and “also clarify any inaccuracies so that the public is made aware of the advances the Washington County School System is making and the commitment by the Washington County Commission to improving the education system here in Washington County.”