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Johnson City BOE OKs plan to shift school grades

SAM WATSON • Apr 3, 2007 at 12:18 PM

JOHNSON CITY - Johnson City's fifth-graders would move to the middle-school level via a radically revised facilities plan awarded the Board of Education's tentative approval Monday.

The plan also would replace the city's oldest elementary school with a new schoolhouse and expand its middle school to accommodate growth.

"They (administrators) definitely thought out of the box," board member Marcy Walker said. "It just works."

Using the city's $47 million share of county school bonds and other capital funding accounts, the proposed building program would:

•Complete renovations at what is now Science Hill High School's 8-9 campus (formerly the Liberty Bell complex) and add a gymnasium and a cafeteria to the campus. Beyond the $6.6 million phase already under way, the cost was estimated at $16.5 million.

•Add a ninth-grade academy/administration wing to Science Hill's 10-12 campus at an estimated cost of $6.2 million.

•Replace Fairmont Elementary School with a new building at an estimated cost of $14 million.

•Add eight classrooms and expand the cafeteria at Indian Trail Middle School at an estimated cost of $2.5 million.

•Reconfigure the system's school grade levels to grades K-4 in elementary schools, grades 5-6 at Indian Trail, grades 7-8 at the Liberty Bell complex, and grades 9-12 at the high school. Under the existing configuration, elementary schools house grades K-5, Indian Trail has grades 6-7, and Science Hill has campuses for grades 8-9 and 10-12.

•Replace Towne Acres Elementary School's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system with a $1.5 million system.

•Acquire land for a long-term plan to build a new elementary school in north Johnson City, where housing has been booming over the past decade.

Previous proposals called for the Science Hill 8-9 project, the ninth-grade academy, the new north Johnson City elementary school, expanding and renovating Fairmont and other elementary schools, and converting Indian Trail and the 8-9 campus into two middle schools for grades 6-8.

Recommending the revisions as "The Learning Plan," Director of Schools Richard Bales noted several academic advantages. He also said the proposal would provide space to accommodate preschool programs, ease elementary school crowding without citywide rezoning, and give Fairmont students a modern school.

Built in the late 1950s, Fairmont is the city's oldest elementary school. It was expanded in the early 1990s. The school has an open campus with several buildings, presenting safety concerns, and some sections are in need of repair.

Bales said administrators had discussed ways to expand and renovate Fairmont, but none of the ideas would provide the dramatic improvements of a new facility.

Board Chairwoman Lottie Fields Ryans asked Bales how long the board could delay building the new school in north Johnson City thanks to the elementary school space provided by moving fifth-graders.

"I think it buys us a good bit of time," Bales replied. "I do think we need to move forward with the land."

Although some board members said they would like to think about the proposal and give principals and others a chance to offer feedback, the board voted 6-0 to approve the plan "in concept" for discussion with the City Commission. Board member Dick Manahan was not present.

Also on Monday, the school board postponed voting on the school system's 2007-08 budget because some members questioned using reserves to fund recurring items and cutting favored expenditures to balance the budget.

Administrators had presented a draft requiring no additional funding from the City Commission.

The draft estimated about $52.2 million in recurring revenue and called for about $2.3 million in reserves and fund balance to offset about $54.5 million in expenditures.

The draft would have bolstered raises from 1 percent to 3 percent. To reduce expenditures, the administration recommended using about $151,000 of the school system's fund balance for testing enhancements, student activities support, bus driver supplements, drug testing and athletics insurance.On the revenue side, the administration recommended hiking tuition rates for non-city residents and increasing sales and county property tax collections estimates.School Finance Director Pam Cox warned that revenue also included more than $1 million in tentative state funding that hinged on increases in the state's cigarette tax.Earlier in Monday's session, the board honored Walker, Manahan and board member Karen Smith for their eight years of service. All three chose not to seek third terms in the April 24 city election. Walker is seeking a City Commission seat.

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