Sullivan County leaders to discuss consolidation, new schools

J. H. Osborne • Jan 16, 2007 at 12:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE - Taking a step toward consolidation of Sullivan County's and Kingsport's governments - and school systems - is a likely hot topic today for the Sullivan County Commission.

That discussion will likely overlap with talk whether or not to move ahead with a proposed $50 million bond issue for school construction projects.

Commissioner John McKamey is primary sponsor of a resolution to create a committee to develop a charter for metro government between Sullivan County and the city of Kingsport.

Such a move is permitted under state law. Kingsport must be included in the effort, as the county's most-populated city. If the County Commission approves McKamey's resolution, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen would have to do likewise for the charter commission to be put in place. That would ultimately bring the issue before city and county voters. The county's smaller cities could opt to be included in the process.

The County Commission passed a similar measure in 1998, but the BMA never discussed it. A majority of county commissioners have supported McKamey's proposal in recent weeks - and a majority of BMA members told the Times-News they, as well, would support creation of the charter committee.

Voters twice rejected consolidated government in the 1980s.

Commissioner Ralph Harr is primary sponsor of the call for a $50 million bond issue, with the money split among the three school systems in Sullivan County - the county's system, Kingsport's system, and Bristol Tennessee's system.

Harr first proposed the bond issue last month, citing a goal of getting two new elementary schools built for the county's system. The two new schools would replace three or four decades-old elementary schools in Sullivan County.

Harr's fellow members of the commission's Budget Committee endorsed his proposal the first night it was unveiled - and said last week they'll let that endorsement stand when it comes for discussion by the full commission.

The proposal failed, however, to gain the endorsement of the commission's other two primary committees. A sticking point among those unwilling to vote any time soon for the measure - you can't really call them "opponents" because several took pains to say they're not necessarily against Harr's proposal - has been lack of action on an earlier call by the commission for a study of the school systems' long-term needs.

In answer to that concern, Harr last week said he will amend his proposal for the $50 million to include 11 months for such a study to be conducted.

Nothing would be done with the bond issue proceeds until Dec. 1, Harr said - but he wants the commission to go ahead and vote on the matter.

Key questions to be addressed by the study include: If the cities - and therefore their school systems - are going to continue to grow, it will be hard for the county to predict where it should build new schools, or if it should build any new schools at all; state mandates could force consolidation of all the school systems in the county within a few years, anyway; and without a building plan from the school system, it's hard to say if $50 million will cover the cost of construction needs.

Harr said what to do to help the county's school system meet future needs has been talked about for too long, and the $50 million bond issue is a step the commission needs to take to spur action.

The commission voted in 2005 to hire an outside consultant to conduct a study of school needs, Harr said - and it hasn't been conducted.

The commission last month formally asked County Mayor Steve Godsey to renew efforts to secure that study. Last week, Godsey said he has sought advice from a state agency on locating potential candidates for the job.

McKamey's resolution for a charter committee, and Harr's resolution for the $50 million bond issue for schools, each need 13 votes from the 24-member commission for approval.

The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

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