Merging Sullivan County communities may be harder than merging schools

Rick Wagner • Mar 16, 2013 at 7:21 AM

KINGSPORT — Although the merger of Sullivan North and Sullivan South high schools into one school in August of 2014 isn’t a done deal yet, it is a major step closer because of a recommendation of the school system head.

So if the Board of Education at a called meeting March 28 approves Director of Schools Jubal Yennie’s Thursday recommendation for the merger for 2014-15, just how does the school system merge two schools that have existed at opposite ends of the greater Kingsport community for more than 32 years?

Yennie, who at Thursday night’s BOE work session said he underestimated the communities’ backlash and concerns about the North-South merger scenario, has proposed a committee of community members, teachers, administrators and parents.

The idea of the three rezoning scenarios was to save money because of budget shortfalls and to make the most efficient and equitable use of resources in the school system for students.

“If it comes to the point where we move forward with it, how do we smooth the transition?” BOE Vice Chairman Jack Bales of Sullivan Gardens, in the South zone, said of the question the committee would address. “How do we get the communities involved (North and South) on the same page?”

The savings is estimated at $2.9 million, not accounting for some additional transportation costs.

Yennie recommended the merger — which also would result in the closing of Colonial Heights Middle and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 — at the start of the work session but said it was not realistic to expect to accomplish it by this August. The middle school closings each would save an estimated $800,000, again without accounting for transportation.

The seven-member BOE is to vote on his recommendation, up or down, at a called meeting on March 28, even though more than 30 public comments at Thursday’s work session expressed opposition to that plan and the other two scenarios.

Those alternate scenarios included: closing the two South zone middle schools and shifting sixth-graders back to elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-graders forward to South High; and, affecting mostly the Sullivan Central High zone, closing Blountville Middle and Central Heights Elementary, moving Central Heights students to Blountville Elementary and Blountville Middle students to Holston Middle.

“When you look at it long term, it’s a continual process,” Bales said of school facility operations.

He said facilities are built, used and then sometimes closed or transformed to different uses.

“The demographics change. The communities change,” Bales said. “I went from the old Sullivan (High) School to UT (University of Tennessee, Knoxville).” That was before Sullivan West High, which became a middle school after the formation of South from a combination of Central and West students.

During Thursday’s public comments, Heather Sanders, who has children at Colonial Heights Middle and Rock Springs Elementary in the South zone, said the county school system needs to do a better job marketing what North and South offer.

Under managed choice, which has been in effect since shortly after Yennie took the helm in mid-2010, the county system allows any student in the county, including the cities of Kingsport and Bristol, Tenn., to attend any county school that has physical room to accommodate them.

“We don’t have to go to D-B (Dobyns-Bennett), that huge cookie cutter,” Sanders said of the almost 1,900-student school, although she added that D-B is a “fine school” in its own right but doesn’t offer the smaller student body and class sizes of North, at around 540 grades 9-12 students, or the same educational experience as the 960 grades 9-12 students as South.

“Let’s not become another Dobyns-Bennett. We’ve got that already,” Sanders said.

She also said that Kingsport is “taking the easy way out” for population growth by “annexation of people who don’t want to be there” instead of attracting residents new to Kingsport and the county.

Bales said the 2008 paid consultant’s study projected population growth would be flat or about 1 percent through 2020.

“At 1 percent growth, you’re not doing much,” Bales said, also a sentiment recently shared by County Commissioner and longtime commission Budget Committee Chairman Eddie Williams.

The “smart-growth” law of 1998 forced local governments to map out urban growth boundaries where cities can annex with no viable legal challenge, which County Commissioner Dennis Houser of Blountville Thursday night said has caused the instability in the South zone in the past few years.

Other recent discussion has focused on the 1,000 city-zoned students in the 10,800-student county system, but Bales said in the South High zone, particularly Miller Perry Elementary, also draws Washington County students.

Bales also said that the issue with transporting South zone students to the North zone isn’t much different than transporting South zone students to Kingsport schools, particularly Robinson Middle or Dobyns-Bennett High, although it is farther to North from the South zone than from North to Robinson or D-B.

Another thing multiple speakers brought up Thursday night was the pay of school board members — nearly $600 a month for all but the chairman, who makes almost $700 a month, and the planned 5 percent increase coming in July because they are tied to county commission pay, which is tied to county mayor pay, which under state law is going up in July.

Even combined with Yennie’s pay of more than $125,000 plus benefits, Bales said that wouldn’t amount to much more than $200,000 a year, if that much.

One speaker compared that to the county’s rankings statewide in teacher pay, which in some categories is 70th or below among 132 school systems.

Bales said Sullivan teacher pay in relation to other systems has fallen over the years as the state of Tennessee has tried to equalize teacher pay statewide through the Basic Education Program funding, taking into account a locality’s “ability to pay” through the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations formula and what the local system actually pays.

Kingsport school officials also have recently lamented that the ability-to-pay calculation and the city’s attempts to increase teacher pay have been offset by the state’s equalization moves.

Another speaker proposed keeping the South zone intact but merging into one middle school and merging into fewer elementary schools.

And some South band students talked about the more practical issues, saying plans to buy new uniforms and commit to future trips were put on hold because of the possibility of a merger.

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