Sullivan County's North zone residents fight another round of school closings

Rick Wagner • Jan 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Some folks in the Sullivan North High School zone have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to school closings and consolidations.

They feel they’ve had more than their share.

And for Sullivan County Board of Education member Jim Kiss of Bloomingdale, if push comes to shove, he’s just not sure he wants his grandchildren to attend grades seventh through 12 at North.

“I would be almost tempted not to send my grandchildren down there,” Kiss said during a Thursday BOE work session on almost $1 million worth of cost savings that includes closing Cedar Grove Elementary, shifting students to other schools in the North zone, and putting seventh-graders at North.

Moving the seventh grade is something Kiss adamantly opposes, and a new option would be to do everything in the original proposal except keep the seventh-graders at Ketron Intermediate instead of moving them to North.

These will be among a group of scenarios to be voted on one at a time during the March 2 BOE meeting. Public comment on the scenarios will be allowed during Monday’s BOE meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Office.

Director of Schools Jack Barnes has said the middle schoolers would have a separate principal, staff and operating hours at North, but not necessarily a separate cafeteria, gym and bathroom space.

“The only way you can segregate them is to build a wall,” Kiss said.

“A 12-year-old with a 19-year-old is ridiculous,” BOE member Dan Wells of Lynn Garden said,

However, Wells said he would not oppose the “school within a school” concept if the seventh- and eighth-graders truly were separated from the 9-12 students.

He has asked the Central Office staff to work on a proposal to put the seventh- and eighth-graders in the vocational area in a two-story section of the school.

Barnes said neither he nor anyone in any school system can guarantee younger and older students won’t mix from time to time.

For instance, Mary Hughes Elementary and Middle School houses K-8, North houses 8-12, and the other county high schools house 9-12.

Beyond the North issues, Kiss said people in the North zone are simply tired of school closings.

“We in the North zone have been on the bubble, I believe, since 1985,” Kiss said of countywide school closings by then-Superintendent Jim Fleming that included the North zone. “It seems to me we’ve had our share.”

However, Barnes countered that the demographics of the North zone — which includes an aging population with fewer school-age children and annexations by Kingsport — demand that the school board make changes to make the North zone as efficient as it can be for now.

During a Cedar Grove PTA community meeting at the school Friday night, Jerry Lane said his thoughts are if the school is working, and math and reading test scores are good, nothing needs fixing.

“It’s been a domino effect all the way from Lynn Garden this way,” Lane said. “We’re tired of people hammering on the North zone.”

Many of the Lynn Garden area schools have closed or were taken over by Kingsport. The school board in 2003 voted to close Lynn View Middle School, and the school system also closed Gravely Elementary in the North zone.

“Unless you’ve been down this road, you have no idea what it’s like,” said Betty Lane, cafeteria manager at Cedar Grove who lost her job — and, $4 an hour, she said — when Gravely closed and she moved to Cedar Grove.

County Commissioner Elliott Kilgore of Kingsport, whose district includes the school, said he once was a student there and hopes the school board will keep it open.

And parent Roger Good, who was serving in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq when school officials looked at the possibility of closing Cedar Grove around 2003, said it is a testament to the teachers there the grades of his son and daughter did not falter in the face of having to go to another school with their dad overseas at war.

In the long term, regardless of whether Cedar Grove closes, Barnes said plans could include building a new K-3 school in the Bloomingdale area, possibly on the Ketron Intermediate School campus, and closing Brookside and Kingsley elementary schools and Cedar Grove if it were still open — although those plans are still in the talking stages.

Kiss also has other issues. He said he’s dismayed at statistics and folks who say North was designed for just more than 2,000 students and can accommodate about 1,600.

Barnes said he doesn’t believe anyone wants 1,600 students at any of the county’s four high schools, and board member and retired teacher Betty Combs of Bluff City said North’s wider halls and large commons areas make it one of the best school buildings in the county.

As of Dec. 19, North — the smallest of the four county high schools — had 794 students 8-12, while the county’s 9-12 campuses were East at 975, South at 1,046 and Central at 1,059.

Functional capacity is 1,641 at North, 1,496 at East, 1,573 at South and 1,437 at Central.

“If you use that functional capacity, every high school in Sullivan County is underutilized,” Kiss said.

Elsewhere in the county, officials have informally discussed building a new middle school in the Bluff City/Piney Flats area to replace two aging facilities there.

The school board at a Thursday work session considered a scenario to move all Mary Hughes Elementary and Middle School students to Bluff City Middle instead of splitting them between Bluff City and Holston middle schools. That would move the ones going to Holston into the Central High School zone away from East High.

However, there didn’t appear to be much support for that after Combs said the traffic was heavy and access difficult at Bluff City Middle already.

The board reached an informal consensus that Mary Hughes middle schoolers would remain as is if the school administration would move all students out of four modular units being used at the school. The school board has targeted modulars for removal countywide.

But in the 15 years Jerry Greene of Bristol has been on the board, he said the system has built one new school — Emmett Elementary in the eastern end of the county.

“At that rate it’s going to take over 300 years to replace all our buildings,” Greene said.

Board member Jack Bales of Sullivan Gardens likened the county system to the private Tri-Cities Christian Schools, which Monday night confirmed it planned to close and sell all its kindergarten through sixth grade campuses — including the old Lynn View Middle School the county closed in 2003 — and consolidate them at its Blountville high school building.

“That’s the same situation we’re in. We have too many buildings, and that prevents us from being financially stable,” Bales said.

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