A packed house listens as people comment about the plan to merge North and South during Thursday's work session of the Sullivan County Board of Education. Ned Jilton II photo
BLOUNTVILLE — One parent Thursday said Sullivan County’s school system has “awoken a sleeping giant” by considering the merger of Sullivan North and South high schools, although no earlier than the 2014-15 school year.
To view a recording of the live stream from last night's meeting, click here.
Another said that proposal, which would close both middle schools in the Sullivan South High school zone, would be “raping and pillaging the very community we live in.”
And County Commissioner and retired school system principal Dennis Houser, who called for a study of consolidating Kingsport, Bristol, Tenn., and Sullivan County schools, said the closing and rezoning decision is the “most important decision that the Sullivan County school board has had to make in 50 years.”
Those were among public comments from more than 30 often impassioned speakers at Thursday night’s Board of Education work session, following Director of Schools Jubal Yennie’s recommendation of a scenario to merge North and South into one school — but not until the start of the 2014-15 school year.
The North-South merger was one of three scenarios on the table since Feb. 28 to help the system become more efficient and equitable in using resources. The BOE will consider his recommendation at a called meet March 28.
About 500 people attended the almost standing-room-only meeting in the Wellmont Regional Center for the Performing Arts at Northeast State Community College.
“There is nothing in these scenarios we can possibly do by August,” Yennie said, although he said that was the initial intent.
But Yennie said merging North and South would better utilize buildings and teachers, as well as help provide more academic offerings, extracurricular programs, fine arts and science, technology, engineering and math. It also would save an estimated $2.9 million per year, not counting unknown extra transportation costs.
Another scenario was to close middle schools in the South zone and move sixth-graders to elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-graders to South High.
The third, in the Central High School zone, was to close Blountville Middle and move students to Holston Middle and close Central Heights Elementary and moves those North zone students to Blountville Elementary in the Central zone. The latter two proposals would save more than $800,000 each.
Yennie said the delayed implementation would allow 16 months for planning the transition, with planning for the future focusing on the budget process this year that would allow for “purposeful cuts” that would not impact future decisions.
He called for a transition team to include principals, teachers, students, parents and central office administration to work through the implementation questions and provide the board and the public updates.
As for a projected $3 million shortfall in the 2013-14 budget, Yennie said with a plan for 2014-15, the school system would avoid maintenance expenditures in the future.
Specific budget cuts would be in high school and middle school staffing, with 20 to 25 positions eliminated throughout the system.
He said sequestration at the federal government level will require a 5 to 10 percent reduction in federal funds.
He said since a large part of Title I funds are tied to full-time classroom assistants, a cut in Title I funds cannot be made without a “commensurate cut in full-time instructional aides in the general purpose budget.”
He said reducing the number of full-time instructional aides to match sequestration could save approximately $250,000 to $500,000.
“We’ll try to bring back folks part time as best we can,” Yennie said of displaced assistants. “That one pains me.”
He said a 5 percent reduction in discretionary spending would save about $250,000. He said other ideas include retirement incentives or job sharing.
But speakers called for the system to look away from school closings for cuts.
Aside from calling for a study of school system consolidation, Houser of Blountville also said the county BOE should look at rezoning students, not closing schools; look at owning its own buses instead of hiring contractors; agreed with Yennie’s demand for a detailed Kingsport plan of services for newly annexed areas; and called for a revamping of the smart-growth law of 1998 that created urban growth boundaries into which cities can annex with no legal opposition.
Tina Rowland, who has a freshman daughter at South, said the merger of the two schools is a short-sighted response that needs a long-term analysis before being approved for implementation.
She said more information should be gathered on transportation costs, extra student time on buses and the potential safety issues with more teen drivers on the road.
“You have awaked a sleeping giant,” Rowland said of parents and community members.
Speaker Tammy Bowery of Colonial Heights blasted Yennie’s recommendation as lacking enough research.
“At best this is not even an educated guess, much less a recommendation,” Bowery said. She said based on adding current enrollments, putting all high-schoolers at one facility and all middle-schoolers at the other, it “clearly puts both schools under immense strain.”
Another speaker said the move would have a devastating effect on sports, particularly varsity football. He said a merged school might not be eligible for postseason play and downplayed statements by Bernard Childress, head of the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association, in a Sunday Kingsport Times-News article.
Childress said that if whichever high school remains kept the same name and school number, that school could remain in its existing classification and conference for two years until reclassification. Those statements came after Childress talked with Yennie about the potential changes.
But the man said the 3A schools would not like a 6A school in their conference.
“These 3A schools are not going to have that,” the man said, adding that he believes the TSSAA will take the path of least resistance and eventually side with the smaller schools in the conference.
Bridget Peters, a North parent, complained that the BOE and Yennie “sat in the cafeteria of North” less than two years ago and said the move of seventh-graders to North was temporary, and that Yennie said if it wasn’t he would be accountable.
The BOE later decided to move the sixth grade to North High as a “school within a school” that today operates as North Middle.
If North became the middle school for the current North and South zones — which speakers repeatedly said they believed would happen — then North would house sixth- through eighth-graders from North Middle, Colonial Heights Middle and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8.