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Sullivan commission approves funding plan for new schools

J.H. Osborne • Dec 12, 2016 at 8:03 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission voted Monday, in a 14-9 vote, to approve issuing up to $140 million in bond debt to fund a school facilities plan supported by all three local school systems, the governing bodies of both Bristol, Tenn., and Kingsport, Eastman Chemical Company, and hundreds of other local businesses as represented by the chambers of commerce for both Bristol and Kingsport.

The cooperative spirit of those entities in and of itself made it a historic effort for Sullivan County.

"The students of Sullivan County are the real winners," Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski told the Times-News later in the day. "I look forward to them having new buildings and other situations having other locations for students in buildings that are in dire need of repair. I look forward to moving ahead with the process. The most important thing I have to say is thanks to the many who spoke today and have spoken in the past. I commend our commission for taking the time to listen with their ears and their hearts. I think they have listened with their ears and their hearts. I am appreciative, even of the commissioners who voted no, I am respectful of their vote and I am appreciative of every one of them."

The school facilities plan has long been talked about as a need, and has been developed over the past two and a half years.

The $140 million will allow each of the three school systems (Sullivan County, Kingsport and Bristol) to undertake major building projects and/or modifications to their existing systems. The money will be split based on average daily attendance. It will be funded by what has been estimated to be a nine-cent increase on the Sullivan County property tax rate, which is paid by city residents as well as those outside the cities.

On Saturday, the Sullivan County Board of Education chose a 112-acre site behind the former Sam’s Wholesale Club off Exit 63 of Interstate 81, called the Lynn Road site, for a proposed $60 million, 1,700-student high school. They also chose a 69-acre site on Weaver Pike just south of Sullivan East High School for a proposed $20 million, 800-student middle school, choosing a site that someday could be home to a new elementary school too.

To gain approval, the proposal needed a minimum of 12 votes in the affirmative. It received 14. Those voting in favor were: Mark Bowery, John Gardner, Sherry Grubb, Andy Hare, Joe Herron, Dennis Houser, Bill Kilgore, Kit McGlothlin, Randy Morrell, Bob Neal, Bobby Russell, Mark Vance and Eddie Williams.

Voting "no" were: Darlene Calton, Michael Cole, Terry Harkleroad, Mack Harr, Baxter Hood, Matthew Johnson, Cheryl Russell, Pat Shull and Angie Stanley.

Some commissioners who voted "no" said they were doing so because their constituents asked them to, despite their personal understanding of the issue.

Some who voted "yes" said they still had problems with some aspects of the plan, but had reached the conclusion the needs outweighed those concerns.

One of them was Sherry Grubb.

"This is really hard for me," Grubb said. "There are so many things about this plan I do not like. And I have voiced those for two years. It is not our job to make those decisions that the school board has made."

Grubb, a former member of the Sullivan County Board of Education, said the issue is not a new one — and decisions in the past that were driven by the passion to keep community schools where they were held lessons for the decision at hand.

Grubb noted many have raised issues about maintenance needs at many of the county school system's aging facilities. Over the past 20 years, Grubb said, money has been spent on many of those older buildings, partially due to residents not wanting to lose schools in their immediate community.

And that, Grubb said, led the county to spend money on buildings "that even back then we probably should have been closing. So, the passion of keeping those schools open is what kept them open and is what has continued to cost us more money instead of maintaining buildings that we could. I understand those schools are near and dear to our hearts, but if we want the absolute best education for our kids, we've got to quit spending money by throwing it down the drain on maintaining older buildings."

More than one commissioner said it was the hardest decision they've ever had to make as a commissioner.

One of them was Joe Herron, who has served 14 years on the county's governing body.

"I've never had a decision to make, probably, as important as this," Herron said, adding that he'd asked his pastor on Sunday to pray the county commission would make the choice "that God wants us to make" and had himself prayed the same all the way to the meeting Monday morning. "I am in District 11, and my district is all inside the city of Kingsport. And when I vote, I have to vote according to my constituency inside the city of Kingsport. I respect everybody's opinion. We need to be able to disagree agreeably. Whatever the decision here, we need to assemble as a team and move forward."

Commissioners listened to an hour and a half of public comment prior to their own deliberations on the issue: 28 people had signed up to take 3-minute turns at the speaker's podium.

Most of those who spoke against the plan were everyday residents. Their biggest concerns: school closures; transportation times to the to-be-built new county high school; that new school's proposed location off Interstate 81 (one speaker said commissioners who voted in favor of the plan would eventually have blood on their hands for causing young, inexperienced drivers to drive on the interstate); the cost (which several said they think has been grossly underestimated to the public); and a perception that the whole plan has come about to answer firstly the needs or wants of the two cities, not the county school system. Several of them pushed for the county to forego plans for a new high school to replace South and North and instead renovate, update and keep open existing schools.

Most of those who spoke in favor of the plan are among the most powerful elected, appointed, and employed in the region — who joined "Together for Tomorrow" in united support for the plan.

County Commissioner Robert White, co-sponsor of the resolution to OK the $140 million, offered the last point of discussion before the vote was taken.

"A 'no' vote today ... I wished fixed the problems that we've heard," White said. "I wish it put the South zone back together. I wished it would help some of that were frustrated by the annexation and reversed that. I wished it kept the Colonial Heights Middle School from leaking. It doesn't. It doesn't put a school on the borders of the county between Sullivan and Washington, where we think we're losing quite a number of people. It doesn't magically make those appear. It doesn't put a school out on the offset, and those children have to ride on the bus a little bit longer than we like. It sends a message though. It sends one message. It sends a message to the business leaders, it sends a message to the potential business leaders. It sends a message to the community and it sends a message to the parents. And most importantly it sends a message to the children. And that message is that we as a county settle for mediocrity. And I don't. And I hope this vote today doesn't show that."

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