Yennie: 'We need to have the resolve to solve the problem"

Rick Wagner • Apr 14, 2013 at 1:26 AM

KINGSPORT — Whether or not a two-year annexation by ordinance moratorium passes in Tennessee, Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said city and county officials need to “have a resolve to solve” city-county school issues.

The county Board of Education will hold a work session on the 2013-14 budget 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 20, at the central office in Blountville. Yennie said that meeting will begin to look at the immediate budget issues the system faces, starting with a heavy focus on the revenue.

“We’ll see how far we can get. I think we’ll probably start working with the revenue side,” Yennie said.

He said discussions would include the decrease in Basic Education Program funding as the system’s enrollment has declined, as well as increased expenses for retirement, although he doesn’t expect to have the specifics on that yet.

On the expenditure side, he has said potential fixes include laying off full-time instructional aides — both locally funded ones and federally funded ones whose funding is being cut by the federal budget sequestration — and possibly rehiring them part-time.

Another possibility he’s discussed includes an early retirement incentive for teachers to help thin the ranks through attrition, with those positions that were replaced generally being lower-paid younger teachers.

However, he said he doubted either of those would be discussed at the meeting, and he emphasized it is a work session at which no votes or decisions can be made. Yennie said the budget, and a rough shortfall of $3 million, is one of the key drivers in his proposal to merge North and South high schools and use the other building for a middle school in the fall of 2014.

That would mean the closing of Colonial Heights Middle and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 in the South zone. North Middle is a school within a school in North High, and its students would either remain there and be joined by the South zone middle-schoolers or go to a middle school at South.

Other reasons advanced for the merger and rezonings included equity in resources used at different schools and increasing program offerings for additional students. However, the county BOE decided to put off a March 28 vote on his recommendation for at least six months to allow a budget cycle, new enrollment numbers and receipt of the city’s five- to 10-year annexation plan.

That plan was to have been discussed at an April 15 meeting between the city Board of Mayor and Aldermen and city Regional Planning Commission, but city leaders Thursday said that meeting has been delayed until at least May to see the fate of annexation bills before the General Assembly, including one that would put a two-year moratorium on city-initiated annexations in Tennessee.

The city and county BOEs had been invited to the April 15 meeting.

During the two years, the Tennessee Advisory Council on Inter-Governmental Relations would do a study on annexation’s impact statewide.

Yennie said if that passes, “It will allow the county board and the city board to get back to the table and get a transition.”

However, he said that still must be done if the legislation doesn’t pass. “It (the moratorium) will not solve the long-term problem,” Yennie said. “We need to get a resolution on the issue.”

He said the “we” is mainly the county and city boards of education.

“It will require good work by the city and county BOEs, and we need to have the resolve to solve the problem,” Yennie said.

An outside 1998 study indicated the county system would see a steady decrease in student enrollment, although that has leveled off to a trickle of a few hundred students a year.

Current enrolment is about 10,600, down from more than 20,000 in the early 1980s. In comparison, operational capacity across the county system is almost 15,400.

Yennie is trying to get movement on an issue long discussed by county and city school officials. In 2010, before Yennie was hired away from Williamson County to head Sullivan schools, a joint facilities committee of both systems came up with recommendations including the city takeover and use of some county school buildings.

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