Sullivan County Board of Education candidates give STEM school high marks

Rick Wagner • Jul 29, 2012 at 2:56 AM

BLOUNTVILLE -- The nine candidates vying for seats on the Sullivan County Board of Education in the Aug. 2 election overall give Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee high marks.

However, that doesn't mean most of them don't have concerns and questions about the school, a joint venture of the county and Kingsport school systems, as it moves toward starting up Aug. 6.

During a July 10 forum at Central High School sponsored by the Central PTSA, the candidates were asked what was being done right with the grades 6-7 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) platform school and what should be different.

District 7 incumbent Betty Combs said her only disagreement with the school was that it was located so far away from the Sullivan East zone, which she represents, and that made it difficult for students there to participate. She also said varying starting and closing times across the county would make it all but impossible for some East zone students who go to school later to attend.

District 7 challenger Michael Hughes of the Bluff City area said he liked the selection of new Principal Sandy Watkins, former STEM coordinator for Sullivan County schools, and the concept.

However, Hughes said he would like to see more children involved in STEM programs countywide, which is part of the plan. In addition to $1 million the two systems are to receive in start-up funds over the first two years, East Tennessee State University got $500,000 for the same period to be the innovation hub for the school. ETSU is to provide professional development for the school's teachers and disseminate its best practices to public school systems across Northeast Tennessee.

District 1 hopeful Heather Price said she is excited by the school but is concerned that students from the far southern and eastern areas of the county didn't participate as much because of distance and the requirement students in outlying areas get their own transportation to pickup points.

The plan, still being tweaked, is for students in outlying areas to come to designated pickup points, which for the East zone would be either Blountville Middle or Central High.

District 1 incumbent Jack Bales said one of the key pluses of the school for him is that it is a collaborative effort of the county and city schools.

District 3 challenger Todd Broughton said his concern is a pay issue, with city teachers working side by side with county teachers several thousand dollars apart on pay.

He said the solution would have been to have slightly raised the pay of the four county teachers and slightly lowered the pay for the four city teachers.

District 3 incumbent Jim Kiss said he agreed with Broughton's pay concerns but added his own concern about the future of the school as it grows into a grades 6-12 facility.

The former Brookside Elementary School, where Innovation Academy is to be housed, simply can't handle that many students at 80 per grade or 560. Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said the Brookside building could handle 6-8 but probably not 6-9 or higher.

The county system also is putting the grades 6-8 North Middle School inside the North High building starting this fall, which may leave little room in that building.

"I don't know where they are going, and I don't think they do either," Kiss said.

Kiss also said he hoped after the two years of funding expired the two systems could find outside funding.

District 5 challenger Randall Jones said the school was a great idea but not enough focus has been put on where future funding will originate.

District 5 challenger Anissa Lyttle said the cooperation between the two systems is good, but she was concerned about the information flow to parents and believes that unresolved transportation issues caused some not to apply.

District 5 incumbent Ron Smith, chairman of the board, said that 516 applying for 160 openings -- 80 for each system -- shows a level of interest he was pleased to have. In addition, he pointed out that Sullivan County and Kingsport won one of only three Race to the Top-funded awards, along with systems in Chattanooga and Cookeville.

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