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West Ridge High contract vote just didn't work out earlier than Aug. 1

Rick Wagner • Jul 30, 2018 at 10:39 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes said it wasn’t for a lack of trying that the vote on the contract for West Ridge High School won’t occur until this week, Wednesday, Aug. 1, to be exact.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable also has publicly said he would like to see a meeting sooner rather than later.

The called meeting is set for 5 p.m. in the health and education building, 154 Blountville Bypass. The proposed agenda for the meeting includes approving the minutes of the July 12 meeting, a review of bids, consideration of a motion that tabled the vote until Aug. 1 and then recommendations and a vote on the contract with J.A. Street & Associates.

Hughes said he and Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski stayed until 10 p.m. after the Thursday, July 12 meeting to try to come up with an earlier date. At the meeting, the BOE voted 4-3 on Mark Ireson’s motion to delay the vote to give more time for review of the bid documents. Ireson suggested, and the board voted on, Aug. 1. Ireson said that would be the first weekday he would be available after a trip to Wisconsin.

Hughes said he was scheduled to be out of town working Aug. 1. Also, Vice Chairman Randall Jones was on vacation in the interim, and Matthew Spivey was scheduled for a medical procedure.

Under the Tennessee law that allows public officials to attend meetings remotely via electronic means, Hughes said, a quorum must be in the room, which in the BOE’s case would be four of the seven members. 

Another remedy would have been to have adjourned the meeting to the following Friday or Monday. Hughes said no one suggested that and that attendance would have been difficult Monday since he was already out of town over the weekend and others would be out of town or unavailable soon. He was interviewed via phone Monday.

A few other things about the delay and the bid:

IS TIMING EVERYTHING?

The vote will be on the eve of the Aug. 2 general election, in which three of seven nonpartisan BOE seats are on the ballot. Hughes faces a challenge from Derrick Paduch, while incumbent Dan Wells is opposed by Paul Robinson. Two are vying for the seat to which Jerry Greene is not seeking re-election: retired teachers Gee Gee Hillman and Randall Gilmore.

Republican Venable faces a challenge from independent Gerald Sensabaugh in the same election.

Hughes said he is confident that those who came to the meeting in opposition to the bid vote were simply trying to delay or derail the high school, proposed after a facilities study with years of public input and a vote by the school board and then the County Commission.

Based on Facebook posts after the meeting, it appears that some of the people who were there believe opponents of the school at least won a delay. Others said that those BOE members who support the school will be defeated in the upcoming election. Some commissioners who voted for the $140 million bond, which benefitted county, Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City schools, were voted out in partisan primaries, but at least one who voted against the bond lost, too. and some who supported the bond did not seek re-election.

WHAT ARE CONCERNS?

Hughes said most questions about the bids, at least in his mind, centered on misunderstandings or no understanding of the bid process. The plan is to use $4.8 million in fund balance to pay for the outdoor athletic facilities since otherwise there is not enough money for the total low bid of just over $61.7 million.

However, he said future “value engineering” beyond that already applied could allow the system to have the money to put artificial turf on the football field if that is what the board wants to do.

Other things, such as door locks, were on separate or alternative bids, but the $61.7 million covers a complete facility, although some argue too many corners might be cut.

He said a proposed pool, estimated to cost about $5 million, also could come in the future if the mechanism to repay bonds did not rely so much on removing revenue the board is using to repay bonds for energy efficiency that are almost paid off.

“If the County Commission wasn’t going to raid our budget, we’d be able to build a pool in three, four or five years,” Hughes said.

Venable has said the bond repayment plans always included those funds, but Hughes said the school board was not aware of that and specifically had Business Manager Ingrid DeLoach ask Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey if the school system would lose other funds to help repay the bonds.

Dec. 2,  2016 Kingsport Times New article reported Bailey said the savings from closure of schools would not be taken to pay the new bond debt.

WHAT HAPPENS IF PROJECT DOESN’T GO FORWARD?

Hughes said he thinks it is not fiscally responsible to have spent almost $10 million on the new high school. That’s how much has gone toward land purchases, architect’s fees, mass excavation and other things. The construction contract has already awarded for the new middle school, which is being built near East High.

And even if the West Ridge project were killed, he said it would be most unlikely Sullivan North High School/Middle School would remain as a county facility.

Kingsport already has purchased the building with $20 million of its share of the bond proceeds. The contract mentions plans to have the new county high school open in the fall of 2020, and the city plans to open North as the new Sevier Middle School in the fall of 2021. However, the contract also says North would be turned over to the city when the county no longer uses it. Hughes said that gives some wiggle room if the high school construction is delayed.

School officials have not announced any contingency plans if no new high school is built, although opponents simply talk about keeping North, South, Central and East and improving them. The board plans are for South and Central to becoming middle schools, allowing the closure of long neglected and aging middle schools, and East to be renovated and take on some of the Central attendance zone.

However, one option, talked about before the facilities study that lead to the current plan, would be simply to move the North High students to South and the North Middle students to either the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8, which is underutilized but in disrepair and the oldest remaining building still in use as a school in the county, or Colonial Heights Middle, which has had a leaky roof for years. 

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