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JC Board of Education candidates say they like building program

SAM WATSON • Apr 4, 2007 at 10:51 AM

JOHNSON CITY - At first glance, Johnson City Board of Education candidates say they like much of what is in the school system's new building program proposal.

"From what I heard, they're on track for addressing the major issues," said James Nagy, one of six candidates in this month's school board race. "I'm sure it's a great plan. It's just a matter of looking at the details."

In addition to Nagy, school board candidates include Tim Belisle, Jenny Brock, Herb Greenlee, Tom McKee and Ralph Van Brocklin. Three winners will take office in May.

The sitting board approved the new facilities direction "in concept" Monday after Schools Director Richard Bales recommended several revisions to previous building plans. Changes included:

•Replacing Fairmont Elementary School with a new building on site.

•Adding eight classrooms and expanding the cafeteria at Indian Trail Middle School.

•Reconfiguring the system's school grade levels to grades K-4 in elementary schools, grades 5-6 at Indian Trail, grades 7-8 at what is now Science Hill High School's 8-9 campus and grades 9-12 at the main Science Hill campus.

Previous proposals included expanding Fairmont and other city elementary schools, building a new school in north Johnson City and converting Indian Trail and the 8-9 campus into two middle schools for grades 6-8.

Bales' new proposal called for the purchase of land for the new north school but held out the school's construction as a long-term priority.

If adopted by the new board and the City Commission, the plan would be funded using the city's $47 million of county school bonds and other school capital accounts.

"I think it's a plan that has a lot of positives to it," Belisle said. "I think it accomplishes a whole lot with the $47 million the city has to work with."

Belisle said he took particular note of the plan's grade configuration and Bales' position that the changes would be better aligned with curriculum, federal and state requirements and students' maturity levels.

He also said he had recently visited Fairmont, and the school's open campus with multiple buildings had outlived its usefulness, both in design and structure.

Nagy, whose sons attended Fairmont, said he was well aware of the school's deficiencies, including the lack of security from the open campus and a lack of bleachers in the school's gymnasium.

Van Brocklin said he found Bales' recommendation interesting, for it was not a direction he would have considered. He said it appeared the plan was intended largely to address the desire to keep schools under 500 students and help with accreditation needs.

Van Brocklin said he was surprised that the administration wanted to maintain a four-tier grade configuration rather than a three-tier system, but he was pleased that the plan would keep students in their neighborhood schools, since widespread rezoning would not be required to ease crowding.

He said he was not put off by Bales' proposal to move the city's fifth-graders from elementary schools to Indian Trail, since they would share a school with sixth-graders rather than older students.

Van Brocklin said he was concerned, though, that the proposal did not address deficiencies at Science Hill's Technology Center or hold back some bond proceeds for future capital needs.

McKee said he was glad the proposal maintained a project at Science Hill's 8-9 complex as the building program's No. 1 priority.

The plan would complete renovations already under way at the 8-9 campus and add a new cafeteria and gymnasium to the campus. It also would add a ninth-grade academy and administration wing to Science Hill's main campus, returning it to a 9-12 high school.

McKee said he would have to closely examine Bales' plans for moving fifth-graders, especially if the intent was to make room for mandatory preschool programs. McKee said he was not opposed to preschool education, but he was concerned that the city's schools were not built to accommodate that age group. He also had concerns about transporting 4-year-olds on school buses.

Overall, however, the former Johnson City mayor said Bales' proposal sounded reasonable, and his philosophy was not to micromanage the administration. As a board member, McKee said, he would learn the reasons behind a recommendation and see whether anything required changes.

Brock said while she gleaned what she could from Bales' presentation at Monday's school board meeting, she had not yet seen a full copy of the proposal. She said she would want to review facts and ask administrators how they came up with the recommendations.

"I look forward to being able to review the plan in more detail," she said, adding that she was pleased with the emphasis on safety and security issues.

As for the grade configurations, Brock said the board would have to take the time to educate parents about the rationale behind the grade-level tiers and gather input before settling on a direction.

Candidate Herb Greenlee could not be reached for comment.

Having started Wednesday, early voting will run through April 19. Election day will be April 24.

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