Officials downplay talk of Innovation Academy ‘divorce’

Rick Wagner • Jul 5, 2013 at 11:21 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Local education officials say a “divorce” between Kingsport and Sullivan County school systems and custody proceedings for their only child, Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee, are not a certainty.

On the other hand, county officials said, neither is realization of Kingsport’s tentative offer to “adopt” the county’s Colonial Heights Middle School.

The city Board of Education and Superintendent Lyle Ailshie at a June 20 work session discussed “streamlining” IA’s operation by the city system overseeing day-to-day operations of the science, technology, engineering and math school that will expand to grades 6-8 in August.

At the same meeting, Ailshie and the board discussed an offer to “assume control” of Colonial Heights this August but allow non-city students to continue attending for the time being.

County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie Saturday said both schools would continue to operate as is for the 2013-14 school year.

“If you give away a middle school ... it seems like you’re going to put yourself in a bigger hole,” Mark Ireson of Colonial Heights told the board during public comment.

Although the county BOE has not formally weighed in on either matter with a vote — and the city BOE has not made either proposal formally — county BOE member Betty Combs of Bluff City let it be known at Monday night’s meeting she was not supporting the city operating Colonial Heights Middle.

Early in 2013, the county BOE and central office staff began considering scenarios that included closing either Sullivan North High School or Sullivan South High as a high school and turning the other into a middle school for both high school zones.

The cost-cutting measure would close Colonial Heights Middle and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 School. The city proposal would keep it open.

Ailshie said that since the city is running out of room at Robinson and Sevier middle schools and is sending students from newly annexed areas of Colonial Heights to Robinson, assuming control of Colonial Heights would help the city system by giving it a third middle school and the county system by taking over the maintenance and operation of a county school.

As for IA, Yennie was critical of Kingsport Saturday for not funding a Project Lead the Way engineering teacher for a related arts slot at IA when the county funded its multimedia arts and music related arts position and also had offered to provide a band director and physical education program at IA.

However, Monday night he announced a resolution of that situation. He said the PLTW related arts teaching position would be funded by one-time Race to the Top federal grant money, which up until this point has been used for non-personnel expenses at IA.

All other teachers and staff at the school are paid by one or the other school system.

In turn, Kingsport will provide the full contingency of physical education and wellness instruction, while the county still will provide band.

For the future, Yennie said a grant writing position focused solely on IA, and funded by the RTTT money, would help attract future grants. An employee of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network last month indicated further grants might be available through the Battelle Memorial Foundation, which administers the RTTT funds that Tennessee won.

Although it is obvious city school board members are interested in “streamlining” IA with the city operating it, and the county school board members are talking about moving it to other locations, city system spokesman Andy True said the term “divorce” was not reflective of or appropriate to the IA situation.

If the two systems did part ways on IA they would split the fixtures, furniture and equipment purchased for the school, according to discussions held before the systems won the grant.

The building, however, remains a county-owned structure.

The two systems received $1 million for the first two years of start-up costs of IA, while East Tennessee State University received $500,000 to support IA and promulgate its best practices across Northeast Tennessee.

Yennie predicted that the county and city school boards would hold joint meetings later this year to discuss Colonial Heights, IA and other issues of mutual interest.

A county BOE self-imposed six-month moratorium on considering the North-South merger will end by early October.

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