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Sullivan school board takes stance against Educational Savings Accounts

Rick Wagner • Apr 3, 2019 at 10:15 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s school board went on record Tuesday night against Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed Educational Savings Accounts or ESAs, with board member Matthew Spivey calling the proposal a school voucher plan under a different name and on a more limited scale.

The Board of Education vote was 5-1 with one absent, with member Paul Robinson voting not and Mark Ireson absent. Yes votes came from Chairman Michael Hughes, Vice Chairman Randall Jones, anti-ESA resolution sponsor Spivey and Randall Gilmore.

Before the vote, Robinson of Bloomingdale asked Spivey if the bill would be a benefit for constituents in the Sullivan North High School zone who might not want to send their children to West Ridge High School, set to open in the fall of 2021 and replace North, South and part of Central high schools. Spivey no because the legislation only applies to districts with failing schools in the bottom 10 percent of academic performance and that none of those exist east of Knoxville.

However, Spivey of Kingsport said that the impact will be real statewide because the bill is becoming “closer and closer to the traditional voucher program” to use public money for private educations. Member Jane Thomas said she opposes the bill because she believes it would force private and religious schools with those students to fall under state and federal requirements they don’t have to meet now.

Sprivey said part of the issue he has with ESA is the money doesn’t have much accountability, that students wouldn’t be forced to take the ACT and end-of-course testing, things that could in the long term determine if the program actually would help economically disadvantaged students as its proclaims. He also said the $125 million cost over three years instead should be spent on public education in public schools.

Spivey also said that a recent amendment to the bill attacks the Tennessee School Boards Association. If passed, the amendment would require school boards spending more than $10,000 for a service from TSBA instead get bids on that service. The TSBA, which lobbies for public schools, as well as the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, the Tennessee Education Association and Professional Educators of Tennessee oppose the legislation.

In other action, the board:

— As previously reported voted 4-2 with one absent to do a blanket adoption of textbooks, including a seventh grade social studies textbook by McGraw-Hill that board member Jane Thomas and four public commenters opposed because of its treatment of Islam and Christianity. The McGraw-Hill textbook has not been formally chosen but is the top pick of teachers. The decision will come after an April 15 public showing of the textbooks 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Akard Service Center, the former Akard Elementary School near Bristol.

— Delayed consideration of bids for live videoing meetings on the school system’s website until the May meeting.

— Informally agreed with board attorney Pat Hull for him to check with a real estate attorney to see options the system has if it decides to surplus the old Holston Institute property near Tri-Cities Airport. Part of the real estate, under the main school building, has a clause reverting the land to the heirs of the original donors if it ceases being used for education purposes.

— Set school fees for 2019-20 at the same level as currently.

— Moved, effective in June, the regular board meetings from the first Tuesday to the first Thursday of each month, leaving work sessions on the fourth Thursday of the month. A regular 4:30 p.m. work session April 23 is to be followed by a called meeting at 6:30 p.m., and a possible called meeting on the search for a new director of school to replace the retiring Evelyn Rafalowski has not yet been determined.

— Recognized Sullivan North High School student Joe Cox for winning admission into a Naval Academy prep program, making him the first-ever Coast Guard-bound county student to do so, county students who attended SCOPE or the Student Congress on Policies in Education, teachers who won 11 UTrust mini grants across the system and the school resource officers, including 14 new ones, to be on all 18 school campuses of the county school system.

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