Sullivan County BOE set to vote on closures, rezonings

Rick Wagner • Mar 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The fate of plans to close three Sullivan County schools and rezone students is set to be decided Monday night.

That’s when the Sullivan County Board of Education is to vote on whether it will follow through with a four-pronged proposal to save more than $900,000 by:

•Closing Cedar Grove Elementary in Bloomingdale, near Kingsport in the Sullivan North High School zone.

•Closing Akard Elementary just west of Bristol in the Central High zone.

•Closing Valley Pike Elementary east of Bristol in the East High zone.

•Rezoning an estimated 125 to 136 students from Colonial Heights Middle School to the under-utilized Sullivan Middle School.

About half the savings would come from the North zone, where Cedar Grove K-3 students would be split between Kingsley and Brookside elementary schools and all fourth-graders in the zone would go to Ketron Intermediate.

In turn, the seventh grade would leave Ketron and join eighth-graders already at North to form a “school within a school” there. BOE member Jim Kiss of Bloomingdale has asked about leaving the seventh grade at Ketron even if Cedar Grove were closed, but Director of Schools Jack Barnes recently said that wasn’t workable because Ketron wouldn’t have room to handle special education students.

The middle school rezoning in the South zone would save $850 but would end the use of six modular units at Colonial Heights. The other proposals also would do away with modular units, which the school board targeted after heavy winds all but destroyed one at Kingsley Elementary School in Bloomingdale in 2003.

“We don’t take these proposals lightly. We think about it and pray a lot about it,” said BOE Chairman Ron Smith of Blountville.

At community meetings, Smith has asked the crowd to pray for him and other board members as they ponder their choices.

“We do care, and we will take what you have to say into consideration,” BOE member Larry Harris of Colonial Heights told the crowd at a North High zone community meeting Feb. 17 that drew about 1,500 people, the most of any meeting.

Many in the crowd that night said they came to speak against the idea of North as a K-8 school, an idea supported in 2004 by BOE member Jack Bales and mentioned recently by County Commissioner Sam Jones of Colonial Heights.

North parents, supporters and students said the zone has been “picked on” enough and should be left alone, at least until building and renovation plans are in place for a permanent solution for that community.

Barnes has repeatedly said the proposals are difficult decisions, but the school system must get leaner if school officials expect the County Commission to follow through with a $50 million bond issue for school renovation and building the commission went on record supporting as a concept.

In the South High zone, two Peppertree subdivision parents have spoken out against the rezoning because of Kingsport annexation plans in their area.

Under a 2006 BOE policy, students in areas annexed by the city can choose to remain in the county system or go to the city system. But the parents said uncertainty about how many students actually would do that is a strong argument against rezoning until things settle down in a few years.

In the background of the decisions is a $138,000, two-phase report from a Knoxville-based consulting group that looked at the physical condition of the school buildings, as well as enrollment projections and capacities.

Barnes said the study, funded by the County Commission, firmed up what school officials already knew about most of the 28 schools in the county that serve a student population of about 12,000 that is shrinking, on average, about 1 percent a year.

Barnes said the scenarios are a temporary bridge leading to a comprehensive building and renovation plan down the road.

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