Sullivan County BOE reverses course on Orebank rezoning

Rick Wagner • Jul 12, 2012 at 10:53 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Board of Education has unanimously rescinded a rezoning of 44 Orebank community elementary students from Ketron Elementary to Central Heights Elementary.

The move came at a called budget meeting Thursday after parents presented a petition with more than 178 signatures against the rezoning. Parents also blasted the board and administration for not communicating the proposed rezoning to them before the vote.

Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said the rezoning could have been handled better and apologized to parents for that. However, he said it was proposed as a long-term budget matter and was to help shore up the population at Central Heights and make classroom sizes as efficient as possible.

“I’m probably the first to admit some mistakes were made and lack of communications,” Yennie said before recommending deferring the rezoning decision “at least a year.” The board voted 7-0 on that proposal.

BOE member Betty Combs said a waiting period of 45 days or two months is needed before such proposals are voted on in the future.

“When we look at this again, I would like for us to really not consider moving kids across the (high school) zone lines,” BOE member Jim Kiss said.

However, BOE members Jack Bales and Jerry Greene said that would be too limiting on the board.

“We don’t know what situation we will be in this time next year, and that’s across the county,” Bales said. “We really need to take a look at this.”

Public comments normally are not allowed at called meetings, but they were allowed Thursday. During a BOE candidates forum Tuesday, challengers complained about a lack of communication with parents, specifically over the Orebank rezoning and a proposed rezoning in the East High School zone that failed. It would have shifted students from Weaver Elementary to Emmett Elementary.

Robin Ketron of the Orebank community presented the petition, bearing the names of 178 plus ones still being gathered during the meeting, to the board.

Ketron alleged the rezoning was “made in a secret fashion” and not announced to the Orebank community or the Sullivan North Middle and High schools administration beforehand.

She said parents should have been made aware of the proposal beforehand and “we’ve still not heard anything.”

Ketron said the affected parents and students found out through Twitter, Facebook, the Kingsport Times-News and word of mouth.

“They should be allowed to attend the new Ketron school, which cost millions of dollars,” Ketron said of the expansion and renovation of the school into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school with a more than $15 million low-interest federal bond.

Part of the confusion was whether the rezoning affected middle and high school students, which it technically didn’t, although Kiss at the time complained it would act to drain the North zone of more students because Orebank students attending Central Heights Elementary would tend to move on to Blountville Middle and Central with their friends of six years rather than go back to North Middle and North High.

Yennie said about 100 students total, K-12, live in the Orebank area.

Further confusing things was the county’s policy that allows students from anywhere in the county, including the cities, to attend any county school if physical room is available if they provide their own transportation.

Ketron is projected to have about 679 students, by far the largest elementary in the county and region.

The change technically was only for the transportation of Bus 311, but North zone parent Paula Broughton of Bloomingdale said the Orebank parents deserved the same courtesy shown to parents of less than 10 students affected by a rezoning earlier this year, in which parents were given a month’s notice. She is the wife of District 3 hopeful Todd Broughton, who is challenging incumbent Kiss.

She said the agenda of the June 28 meeting was not posted on Twitter and Facebook until June 25, and the called meeting should have been posted on the school system Web site. She also said BOE members should have notified Orebank parents and students.

Also, she said the BOE and central office mistakenly thought Kingsport schools were taking away tuition-free status for more than 40 students in the Lynn Garden area of the county when the city board actually voted to allow existing students to continue but not allow incoming kindergarten students to attend tuition free.

Becky Hauk, parent of a rising kindergarten student from Orebank, said she was more upset with the lack of communication than the rezoning itself. She was left to wonder if she had to take another day off work to reregister her child at the new school and which supply list to use.

“If you want our support, you have to communicate with us,” Hauk said. “Would you tolerate this being done to your children?”

She said after e-mailing board members, only Chairman Ron Smith and Kiss responded, and Combs’ e-mail did not work.

Hauk said she realizes the “master plan” for the North zone is for it to become part of the city system.

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