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The $140M question: Committee quizzes school director about facilities plan

Rick Wagner • Nov 30, 2016 at 11:20 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — A $140 million capital school improvement plan supported by Sullivan County, Kingsport and Bristol, Tenn., education officials received both support and pushback from the public during a Sullivan County Commission Administrative Committee meeting Tuesday night.

Commissioners mostly either expressed opposition to the resolution, which might go before all three standing committees again before a scheduled full commission vote Dec. 12, or wanted answers about bond interest costs and the amount of a potential property tax rate increase. County Mayor Richard Venable said those answers likely would be available by week’s end after Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey does more research.

Budget Committee Chairman Eddie Williams of Sullivan Gardens is the resolution sponsor, and Commissioner Bob White of Bristol is the co-sponsor. It will go before the Executive Committee at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and the Budget Committee at 7 p.m. Thursday. 

After almost two hours of discussion, questions and input, the Administrative Committee took no action on the $140 million proposal to move forward with the facilities plan that includes a new 1,700-student high school near Exit 63 of Interstate 81 and a new 800-student middle school in the Sullivan East High School zone. Sullivan North, South and most Central students would attend the new high school, with East receiving some renovations to handle about 250 Central students who wouldn’t be shifted to the new high school. 

Commissioner Baxter Hood of Colonial Heights said constituents don’t understand the proposal and said meetings are needed in neighborhood schools.

 “They’re uninformed. They don’t know what’s going on.”

Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said a large community meeting at Northeast State Community College and two large input meetings at Holston Middle had been held, as well as monthly school board meetings where public comment is welcome. She added that she also is available to speak to PTAs and other groups about the plan.

Rafalowski said the career technical education focus of the proposed high school is sorely needed, as are more modern and strategically placed school buildings.

“There seems to be some kind of assumption we’re a rubber stamp for the school board,” Commissioner Pat Shull of Kingsport said, arguing for multiple options to be brought to the table instead of just one since the commission is the funding body with taxing power. Near the end of the meeting, he proposed voting on the matter then, but Bobby Russell of Kingsport and other commissioners said they needed the financial information Venable promised before making any decision, even a nonbinding recommendation to the full commission. Russell made a motion for approval, seconded by Bob Neal of Bristol, to allow discussion, but they later withdrew their motions.

The plan for the county also would sell Sullivan North High to Kingsport for $20 million and convert South and Central high schools into middle schools, while Bluff City, Holston Valley and Mary Hughes middle school students would be shifted to the new middle school. For Kingsport’s share, the money would go toward a new regional science and technology building at Dobyns-Bennett High School, the conversion of North into a city middle school and some changes at D-B. Bristol would use its share of the money to build a new Vance Middle School.

Commissioners said questions emailed to them include concerns about safety of longer travel times to and from the new schools, as well as a desire for smaller high schools.

During public comment, CeeGee McCord of Eastman Chemical Co., Jeff Frazier of Northeast State Community College, dean of the RCAM (Regional Center for Applied Manufacturing), and Vance Middle Principal Amy Scott spoke in favor of the plan, while former county commissioner Dwight King of Piney Flats and Dan Page of  Colonial Heights spoke against it.

Administrative Committee Chairwoman Cheryl Russell of Bristol said she believed great education could take place in not-so-great buildings and asked why education spending continued upward when enrollment is going down. Rafalowski cited rising health care costs as well as renovations of schools and maintenance costs, adding that the system has closed nine school buildings since 2000. The oldest building in use is Weaver Elementary, built in 1921; the newest schools are North and South, built in 1980.

Commissioner Mack Harr of Piney Flats asked why more career technical classes could be offered in one location or added to existing buildings. Rafalowski said both were considered early on in the facilities study and later pointed out the first facilities study was commissioned in January of 2007, almost a decade ago. CTE, to be a focus of the new high school, serves about 75 percent of county students, who take at least one CTE class. Offering all CTE programs in four schools is not financially feasible, she said, and neither is a lone CTE-only school.

“I believe the commission should see some options,” Shull said. “To vote either this or nothing is not a choice.”

Rafalowski responded that five options were narrowed down to one by the Board of Education in May of 2015 and that the year-long process included community meetings and input facilitated by consultant DeJong-Richter. She also pointed out she has appeared before commissioners on the matter before and the other options are on the school system website and were discussed publicly, but Shull was unmoved.

“We may be picking a Cadillac when a Ford will do the job,” Shull later said.

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