Hailey Turner and Nyan Baker smile after convincing the Knoxville School Board to move graduation ceremonies back to the high school gym.

KNOXVILLE — Graduation ceremonies will return to the Knoxville High School gymnasium in May after senior class leaders swayed the district’s school board Monday night.

The Class of 2018 graduated from the air-conditioned comfort of the Knoxville Performing Arts Center after temperatures near 100 degrees stirred health concerns about holding commencement in the gym. But while KPAC offered 68 degrees of coolness, it also seats about 700, so each graduate could invite only six guests. District officials received positive feedback about the move, but many families were hot under the collar about the seating limit.

In December, nearly two thirds of the school’s 122 seniors responded to a survey about where to hold graduation, and 80 percent of those favored the gym. Only 9 percent voted for KPAC. Nyan Baker, a senior leader, told the board that graduation is about the students and their accomplishments, so students should have a say about where it takes place. It’s wrong to deny them the privilege to invite whomever they wish to attend, he added.

“Six tickets per student, a lot of kids said that’s not nearly enough,” Baker said.

Students also reached out to six nearby high schools, none of which limit attendance, he added.

Cameras installed in KPAC and the gym can livestream the ceremony to the school’s media center or commons area. Some people have stepped out of the gym and into the commons in the past to watch graduation in a cooler setting, said senior class sponsor Rhonda Douglas. Large fans are used to circulate air in the gym, she said.

“We’ve only had one that somebody passed out due to the heat in my 26 years, so I figure that’s a good record,” Douglas said. “Not that I want that to happen again, but the heat doesn’t bother us. We can do it.”

Some board members voiced their preference for KPAC, but admitted that the students had done their homework and made their case.

“I like KPAC better, but it’s not my party,” Larry Scott. “This is their day.”

The board also took no action on an opportunity to get federal funding for a tornado-safe room at KHS after the district’s share of the price tag jumped nearly $300,000.

The district had applied for money to build a structure that could double as an expanded wrestling practice facility, only to discover that it would need to put up 15 percent more of the cost than it originally expected. Spending $486,000 would pull money away from roof repairs and other needed projects, district Business Manager Craig Mobley said. With a Jan. 31 deadline to apply for a grant with a higher matching burden, board members said they might consider the project again in 2020.

In other action, the board:

  • approved the 2019-2020 district calendar.
  • heard a presentation about the Northstar Elementary teacher leadership program.
  • moved its Feb. 11 meeting to 5 p.m. and canceled its Feb. 25 meeting.

Brendan Finan contributed to this report.

Pat Finan is the editor of the Knoxville Journal-Express and Pella Chronicle. He can be reached at 641-295-0624 or via email at or

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