KINGSPORT — Some Hawkins County school buildings are 50, 60, and 70 years old, and with maintenance costs piling up, the possibility of a school consolidation program was discussed at last Friday's Board of Education retreat.
Consolidation wasn't on the retreat agenda, which was held at the Eastman Lodge at Bays Mountain.
But after a summary of upcoming building renovation projects costing millions of dollars took almost the entire morning, board member Chris Christian threw the idea of consolidation on the table "for discussion purposes only."
Sullivan County and Greene County are currently involved in their own consolidation programs. Sullivan County’s plan has proven to be extremely controversial and unpopular in the affected communities.
Acknowledging that Hawkins County communities are equally passionate about their schools, Christian noted that it's still worth an investigation to determine if consolidation is feasible and/or worth the investment.
Christian's vision for consolidation would include building one main high school in a central location near Rogersville to serve the entire county, excluding Clinch, which would remain a K-12 school. The new high school facility would also house a Central Office.
The two main high schools, Volunteer and Cherokee, both of which are almost 40 years old, would then become the county's only two middle schools.
The middle schools in Bulls Gap, Rogersville, Surgoinsville and Church Hill would then become elementary schools. Joseph Rogers Primary and Church Hill Intermediate, which are both fairly new, would also be utilized as a special academy or possibly a STEM school.
The idea would be to reduce the number of school buildings being maintained, which also includes the alternative school in Rogersville, from 19 to 10.
"Some people are going to take it the wrong way, and this is just speculative, but what would happen to our system if we were to take a hard look at the money we're spending on maintenance issues — millions of dollars," Christian said. "I'm just looking into the future. Just brainstorming."
Christian added, "I don't know if it's feasible. I've not done the logistics on that. But let's just look at that. ... I understand there's going to be a tremendous cost for a new school, and renovations would still need to be done at Cherokee, Volunteer, (and the four current middle schools). The savings from shuttering those schools and consolidating down to 10 schools ... I'm thinking we could put more money back into the educational process — the technology, the instructors."
Director of Schools Steve Starnes noted that Sullivan and Greene counties contracted for a professional facilities study and acted on those recommendations.
Greene County's BOE recently voted to go from four high schools to one, and now that board is asking its County Commission to approve funding for that plan.
"Sullivan County is in the middle of this same thing, and I think it is something you have to look at long range, because then you get into the age of the buildings," Starnes said.
Maintenance Director Shannon Glass said consolidation will substitute maintenance costs for loan payments.
"I agree that some things will be reduced, but if you consolidated into one (high school) facility, it's not going to be the same size," Glass said. "You're going to add square footage. Square footage is where your cost is at. Right now we're spending 21 cents per square foot. If you ask any district in this area, they'll pass out when they hear ours is that low."
Christian: "I made these statements, not to open up a debate. This is just a brainstorm."
Glass: "Grainger County did it, and it's working great for them. It's an option."
The facility studies that were conducted in Sullivan and Green counties cost $250,000 and $240,000 respectively. Board Chairman Bob Larkins said the BOE would be irresponsible if it didn't look at every possible cost savings option, including consolidation.
"We have to look at the age of our buildings," Larkins said. "We've got 60- and 70-year-old buildings that we're paying for constantly, doing repairs. It's worthy of our time as a board to look at our long-range future. We've got a 5-year plan. Why don't we have a 10-year plan or 15-year plan."
Larkins added, "A couple of years ago, we talked about shuttering a couple of schools (Keplar and McPheeters Bend), and if my memory serves me, we were talking about $2 million savings just in annual costs, not counting renovations. We didn't get a lot of support from the County Commission on doing either — trying to save money, trying to make our budget more practical. Although this seems quite radical, it's not. I think it's worth looking at, and we're doing ourselves and the community an injustice if we don't look at it."