Sullivan County education officials to mull changing school choice policies

Rick Wagner • May 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Maybe the second time will be the charm.

The Sullivan County Board of Education for the second time this year will consider a proposal to change its “school choice” policies, which allow some students inside the Kingsport city limits to attend county schools without going through a lottery.

The BOE earlier this year considered Director of Schools Jack Barnes’ proposal but took no action on it. However, Barnes brought up an amended version of the idea during a recent retreat, and the new proposal will go before the BOE on Monday.

“I don’t think anything will happen next (school) year,” Barnes said Thursday.

If approved by the BOE, Barnes said the changes would likely be phased in starting in 2010-11 and likely let students finish out their time in a county school before moving on to a city school or seeking a county slot through the lottery.

At issue are two policies.

One, going back to the 1980s, allows students living in the 1979 Lynn View High School zone to attend county schools even if the area is annexed. Called the “gray area” policy, it is accompanied by Kingsport allowing non-city students to attend Kennedy Elementary — the old Lynn Garden Elementary — which the city took over. The county students allowed to attend were in the county system’s zone for the school before it was taken over by the city.

The other policy, approved by the Sullivan County BOE in April 2006, allows students living in areas annexed by Kingsport from then forward to stay in the county system instead of being forced into the city system.

It was passed when parents and students were expressing concerns about Kingsport annexation into Rock Springs and development of the new John Adams Elementary School there.

However, the policy applies countywide.

Barnes has said the change is needed because the BOE has instructed the system to plan and staff schools based only on in-zone students.

Further complicating things, however, is discussion between the Kingsport Board of Education and City Manager John Campbell about reducing or eliminating tuition for non-city students, particularly those who live in the area around John Adams Elementary and might be subject to future annexations.

Between the county’s North and South high school zones, Barnes’ proposal ultimately could shift about 500 students to the city. Substantially fewer county students are in the city system.

School board attorney Pat Hull and Barnes said that barring an agreement or policy, students annexed by a city with a school system do not have a right to attend a county school unless the county system agrees.

In other action, the board is to consider:

•Requiring students applying for out-of-zone placement to apply every year instead of just once. That would help the school system keep up with students who do not plan to return to school in Sullivan County.

•Hiring Beeson, Lusk & Street for architectural and engineering consulting services for a systemwide construction and renovation program. Discussed at a May 13 board retreat, it would be a two-pronged plan costing about $107 million over about a decade. At least 11 schools would be closed, and the plan would require countywide capital outlay notes of almost $202 million when accounting for the required funding for Kingsport and Bristol, Tenn., schools.

The last county bond issue for schools, in the late 1970s, was for rural-only bonds, which levied a higher property tax rate on non-city property owners.

The Sullivan County Commission has gone on record in support of the idea of a $50 million bond issue.

•Closing Gunnings School. The school houses mostly special education and alternative high school classes, and moving programs elsewhere would save more than $40,000 a year plus one-time upcoming maintenance costs of $56,000.

•Extending the school day for students by 30 minutes, from 6.5 to seven hours, which would give the system up to eight extra days to miss for weather or other events without making them up and another five days for professional development.

Hawkins County has used the system for years, and the Kingsport BOE is considering it.

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