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Sullivan BOE discusses closing three more schools

Rick Wagner • Nov 30, 2018 at 8:41 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s Board of Education could vote as early as January whether to close Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee, Blountville Middle School and the grades 6-8 portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 this spring as cost-cutting measures.

All told, closing the three at the end of the 2018-19 academic year would mean an annual estimated savings of nearly $1.4 million. 

BOE members, including Vice Chairman Randall Jones, said the closings would help make up the loss of $1.6 million in annual renovation money the County Commission has cut from the school budget and more than $300,000 annually going toward additional school resource officers not in the original 2017-18 spending plan.

“You can’t lose $2 million and not do something,” BOE Chairman Michael Hughes said during a non-voting board retreat Thursday.

 “These numbers are real. We have to live with them. We can’t live without $2 million and not acknowledge it,” Hughes said. “There’s nobody here that would vote to close these schools unless we had to.”

WHEN COULD VOTE OCCUR?

Near the end of the daylong retreat at the central office, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski presented the board the options and background on closing the three facilities for a total estimated annual savings of $1,369,500, which she said is the “max it could be.” Closing Blountville would save an estimated $654,500 a year, while closing the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 would save an estimated $421,000 and closing IA, which is inside Holston Middle School, would save an estimated $294,000.

“These are possibilities that we are putting out there,” Ralfalowski said.

She emphasized that the board has not voted on any of the three and doesn’t plan to at Tuesday’s regular meeting and that the three closures are likely the least painful options to cut costs, but that others would be presented if the BOE rejects them.

“These (options) are per the request of the board,” she said.

Mark Ireson said community input should be sought. Rafalowski and Hughes said that is why the options were released more than a month before any likely vote, which could occur at the regular Jan. 8 meeting following a Jan. 3 work session. Public comments on non-agenda items are allowed at the end of school board meetings, which start at 6:30 p.m. in the first-floor meeting room of the health and education building off the Blountville Bypass.

“I think this should be something we discuss in January” and possibly vote up or down then, Hughes said.

Rafalowski said the 2019-20 budget process in the spring means a decision would be needed by February or March. 

WHAT ABOUT JOBS?

Rafalowski said past school closings and consolidations — the most recent being Weaver Elementary, closed due to structural deficiencies in the fall of 2017 — included no job losses, with employees voluntarily retiring or finding jobs at other county schools.

 “We haven’t had to say, ‘You don’t have a job,’ ” Rafalowski noted, adding that might not be the case with the three proposed closings. “These are not pleasant conversations.” 

BLOUNTVILLE, SULLIVAN GARDENS WOULD CLOSE EARLIER THAN PLANNED

Blountville Middle and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 were already set to be closed in the spring of 2021 and their students shifted to the new Sullivan South Middle School, now Sullivan South High, when South students go to the new West Ridge High School on Lynn Road near Tri-Cities Airport off Exit 63 of Interstate 81.

Closing Blountville would save $569,500 in personnel costs: $425,000 in professional employee pay, $118,500 in support staff pay and $26,000 in coaching supplements. Moving the school’s 336 students to Holston Middle would also save $85,000 in operational costs.

Closing the grades 6-8 operation at Sullivan Gardens K-8 would save $353,500 in personnel costs: $260,000 in professional salaries, $67,5000 in support staff pay and $26,000 in coaching supplements. Those items and $67,500 in operational costs would mean a net savings of $421,000 for the 163-student school.

IA WAS PLANNED FOR 2021 MOVING, NOT 2019 CLOSING 

IA started out as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program operated by Kingsport and Sullivan County schools in 2012 in the old Brookside Elementary in Bloomingdale. When Kingsport left the program after two years, the county moved it to Holston Middle near the airport.

IA had not been slated to close but rather be shifted inside the new Sullivan Central Middle along with Holston Middle and Blountville Middle after Central is slated to close as a high school in the spring of 2021 with the opening of West Ridge. 

Closing IA, which has $420,000 in personnel and 144 students, would mean a total savings of $294,000 after accounting for the loss of $126,000 in potential Tennessee average daily attendance funding from 14 out-of-zone students, which Rafalowski said included pupils from Hawkins County and elsewhere in the region.

WHAT ABOUT TRANSPORTATION?

Rafalowski said the transportation costs would be a wash for Blountville and Sullivan Gardens, with students switching from existing elementary to high school bus routes, and might even save a little with IA, which runs shuttle buses from Kingsport and Bristol to the school, but that any costs or savings would be reflected in the transportation budget for 2019-20 if the BOE approves the three closures. 

 

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