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Sullivan County schools get one-year reprieve from changes

March 2nd, 2009 12:00 am by Rick Wagner






BLOUNTVILLE — No decisions will be made to close or rezone county schools for at least another year, the Sullivan County Board of Education decided Monday night.


Instead, the BOE instructed Director of Schools Jack Barnes and his staff to put together a comprehensive building and renovation plan for which to seek a $50 million bond issue from the County Commission.


The 5-2 vote by the BOE means that Cedar Grove, Akard and Valley Pike elementary schools will stay open for 2009-10 and that students will not be rezoned from Colonial Heights Middle School to underutilized Sullivan Middle School — changes that combined would have saved more than $900,000 and done away with use of all but possibly one modular classroom in the schools affected.


However, Barnes said it also means the school system will have to find other places to make cuts in its 2009-10 budget, which he said is expected to be extremely tight, in addition to finding some more funds to do the long-range building and renovation plans.


The vote on the motion by BOE member Larry Harris of Colonial Heights, seconded by member Betty Combs of Bluff City, was held in a standing-room-only meeting at the BOE office.


“I would like to see funding in place prior to us doing this,” Harris said of the County Commission, which has gone on record in support of the concept of a $50 million school bond issue — which would be shared with Kingsport and Bristol schools proportional to the number of students each system has.


In addition, Harris said the board needs to see concrete building and renovation proposals for specific sites.



Those talked about during recent community meetings included a new or renovated K-8 facility in Bloomingdale; a similar facility between Bluff City and Mary Hughes middle schools around Piney Flats; and a similar facility in Blountville.


Harris after the meeting said if the later occurred, the old Blountville Middle might become the new Central Office, meaning the school system could stop leasing office space from the Sullivan County Department of Health.


Harris, Combs, Jim Kiss of Bloomingdale, Dan Wells of Lynn Garden and — after hesitation — Chairman Ron Smith of Blountville voted for the motion.


“What are we going to be able to afford next year or the year after that?” Smith said before the vote, adding that the federal stimulus money has specific and strict earmarks. He said the issue of aging schools and a school population decreasing at about 1 percent a year aren’t going away.


Jack Bales of the Sullivan Gardens area and Jerry Greene of Bristol did not vote for the motion.


“I suggest we move forward with some of these proposals,” Bales said. “We’re going to have to make certain adjustments regardless of what the County Commission does.”


He said the county school system needs to build and maintain enough building space for the county student population, adding that city students and others from outside the county should be able to attend only if space is available.


However, an April 2006 board policy change allows any students in areas annexed since then to continue attending a county school.


Bales, after Harris made his motion, proposed voting the four scenarios up or down Monday night but not putting the changes into effect until the fall of 2010.


However, he got no second, and under operating rules the board voted on the first motion first.


Greene said the school system has built only one new school — Emmett Elementary in the eastern end of the county — in his 15 years on the school board. Before that, the next-newest buildings are North and South, consolidated schools that opened in 1980.


“We haven’t shown too much of an inclination to deal with these issues,” Bales said of aging buildings and a decreasing student population. “We’ve had these discussions before and not been willing to move forward.”


Barnes said a board retreat will be held before the end of the fiscal year to go over building and renovation scenarios.


The proposals for school closures and rezonings were discussed in community meetings held countywide since late January. All drew opposition, but the largest meeting by far was a North High meeting that drew a crowd of 1,500 in opposition to the Cedar Grove closing, shifting K-4 students to Kingsley and Brookside elementary schools, putting all fifth-graders at Ketron Intermediate, and moving the seventh-graders from Ketron to North for a 7-8 “school within a school” there.


The North zone changes would have saved about $450,000, while rezoning 125 to 136 children from Colonial Heights to Sullivan middle schools would have saved only $850 but done away with modular units at Colonial Heights and boosted use of Sullivan, which is at about 40 percent capacity.


After the BOE’s vote Monday, Barnes thanked the board for direction on the issues, thanked parents and others who supported their schools, and urged them to talk with commissioners and community members in support of a building and renovation program.


“In the end, it’s going to be your pocketbooks, too,” Barnes said.


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