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Sullivan BOE tables vote on 'school choice' proposal

April 9th, 2009 12:00 am by Rick Wagner






BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Board of Education will decide next month whether to keep allowing students annexed into a city to continue attending a county school.


If the policy is reversed, more than 500 students currently attending county schools could switch to the Kingsport system in the next two years.


The BOE decided to table the “school choice” proposal until the May board meeting at the suggestion of Chairman Ron Smith of Piney Flats.


Smith called for the delay because board member Jack Bales, who lives near Sullivan Gardens and represents the Sullivan South High School zone, was absent because of a mild illness.


However, Jim Kiss of Bloomingdale expressed opposition to the proposal because of its effect on the North High School zone he represents.


The proposal would reverse two board decisions: a 30-year-old vote (the ’79 Rule) that allows all students in the former Lynn View Middle School area to continue attending county schools in the Sullivan North High School zone, and an April 2006 vote specifying that any annexed student from that point forward could choose to attend his or her former county school instead of being forced into a city school.


The latter vote was focused on the Rock Springs area, which Bales represents and where Kingsport is annexing and opening the new John Adams Elementary School this fall.


The BOE Thursday night also set a school board retreat to start at 9 a.m. May 13 at Northeast State Technical Community College.


That meeting is to focus on new construction and renovation projects the system will plan after the potential closure of three county elementary schools, a rezoning in the Colonial Heights/Rock Springs area, and shifting the seventh grade to North.


The board last month voted to delay consideration of the proposed changes, recommended by Director of Schools Jack Barnes, until March 2010.


“Eventually we’re going to have to make some changes in the system,” Barnes told the board.


Kiss, however, questioned doing away with the “’79 Rule” because “that doesn’t affect anybody but the North zone. Last month we were trying to cram kids in North. Now we’re trying to take them out?”


Barnes responded that the board repeatedly in recent years has instructed the Central Office “to staff for in-zone students” only.


“Sometimes both the city (of Kingsport) and us are running buses on the same streets,” Barnes said.


Barnes said he has talked with Kingsport School Superintendent Richard Kitzmiller about the policies, which Barnes said throw uncertainty into both systems each year as students can go back and forth between the systems on an annual basis.


“He (Kitzmiller) has the same problem we have,” Barnes said.


Kiss asked why the county system couldn’t just force annexed students who choose to attend a county school to stick with a county school for their entire secondary school career.


Barnes said he’s not sure that is possible.


“When they (city officials) annex an area, those are city students,” he said.


Kiss also said state funding for each North zone student would follow the student to Kingsport, but Barnes cited a “point of diminishing returns.”


North High School, as of Feb. 16, had 785 students, including 131 under the ’79 Rule and 38 other out-of-zone students. Across the North zone, 232 students are under the ’79 Rule or out of zone.


In the South zone, 16 have recently been annexed by Kingsport, 187 are in litigation, and 88 are in an area targeted in 2010, totaling 291 students.


That makes a total of 523 students in the western end of the county that could be shifted to Kingsport — although 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders would be exempt from the policy.


Kiss asked if the proposal was a step toward “closing North.”


Barnes said he never mentioned that possibility, which would be a board decision.


In other action, the BOE voted to make votes after Thursday night by roll call instead of a show of hands, which Smith said makes it easier to ascertain how members vote and puts the BOE in line with most other boards and public bodies.


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