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Jim Welch column: Demographic changes make drastic action on schools inevitable

March 27th, 2013 12:13 am by JIM WELCH

I’m a county product. The first address I remember having is Route 1, Fordtown, Tenn. We lived on a tar-and-gravel road that was occasionally wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions. A school bus took the whole road. Big community events included PTA meetings and rabies vaccinations for our dogs, both of which took place at the local schools. Whenever I find myself in a place I usually never even dreamed I would ever be, I always ask myself how a kid from RFD 1 Fordtown, Tenn., ever ended up here.

Sometime shortly after I started school at Miller Perry, the community got street addresses and a new school to house grades 6-8. The school was later expanded to 5-8 and later added a gymnasium and a football team to became a “real” junior high school. A mayor of Kingsport at the time essentially said that the lower regions would freeze over before Kingsport would ever annex Colonial Heights and that the city would accept no more tuition students ever in its school system.

Thus began an independent spirit amongst the suburbanites and an eternal grudge to hold against Kingsport. Given how time has passed, I’m guessing many suburbanites who now carry on that eternal grudge have little experience with how it first started.

That was a time when communities around here were growing fast. The Plant employed twice as many people as it does now, and the smaller major manufacturers employed vastly more. We even had a locally owned trucking line that was a major regional employer.

We baby boomers had our parents’ generation building schools so fast that no sooner would one be finished than another one was needed. The morning and afternoon traffic was a flood of big yellow buses hauling children all over the place, except in Kingsport, where almost everybody either walked or rode their bikes to school. Classrooms overflowed, with 36 being a common number to find in almost any elementary classroom anywhere in the county.

Those times are no more. We baby boomers now have ourselves building health care facilities at the rate we once built schools. By natural growth, our schools are shrinking. What’s more, the lower regions must have frozen over, as Kingsport now controls a great deal of Colonial Heights within its city limits.

We have a dilemma with our schools. The county has more space than it has students, and the respective cities have addressed their population declines by annexing areas they once shunned. The result is that we literally have county schools within the borders of city systems and schools distant from those systems hanging on for dear life.

Schools are historically important to communities. I used to teach my history students that early settlers spent what little resources they had building churches and schools, because without either a community wasn’t really a community. To deprive a community of such focal points is simply to deny a community.

I applaud the county school director for walking into the fire. Realistically, the fiscal reality is that something drastic has to be done. There is no flood of people coming to Sullivan County in the foreseeable future, and if they did come, Kingsport or Bristol would most probably annex them.

Another truth is that the kids will do fine with consolidation. New rivalries will replace old ones. New opportunities will compensate for lost identity. New bands and teams will be more competitive than the old ones, and communities will even redefine themselves.

I can write that because I experienced consolidation into Sullivan Central as a student. I was there the day it opened and graduated in its second class. By the time that occurred, we had little idea who had gone where before, as it made no difference. I recall that many adults made it appear the world would end at the occasion of consolidation, but be assured it did not.

There are others who experienced the then-new Sullivan North and Sullivan South, and again many of the adults saw Armageddon in the making. Again, it didn’t happen.

When schools close, there will be no excuse not to convert abandoned schools into community parks. That is a place of financial responsibility I believe rests squarely with the cities that created the problem. It’s the very least they could do to help clean up the mess.

Jim Welch, a Kingsport resident, works in advancing biosafety and biosecurity. E-mail him at

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