Sullivan BOE goes on record against voucher bills, but facilities plan opposition continues

Rick Wagner • Updated Mar 7, 2017 at 8:29 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s school system is moving forward with its school facilities plan, but some folks are claiming wrong decisions need to be corrected so Johnson City and Washington County schools won’t get more Sullivan County students.

Discussion near the end of Monday night’s Board of Education meeting centered on complaints about the already-approved school facilities plan, which includes a new 1,700-student high school near Exit 63 of Interstate 81.

Two members of the public and a school board member urged moving a planned and funded 800-student middle school near Sullivan East High School southward to Piney Flats. Contracts have been awarded for a survey, phase 1 environmental and geo technical studies, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski told the board.

The facilities discussion began when BOE member Mark Ireson questioned a resolution opposing Tennessee voucher bills, which would allow public money to be used for private school education and are making their way through the committee process in the General Assembly. He said since the board Thursday night first discussed the resolution, based on a Tennessee School Boards Association sample resolution, he has received calls and emails from folks still upset about the facilities plan but interested in vouchers.

The vote was 5-1, with Ireson voting no and member Jane Thomas of the Bluff City area abstaining. She opposes the planned placement of the middle school, and Ireson opposes the merging of Sullivan North, South and much of Central high schools into the new high school.

“I understand it’s (voucher legislation) going to make a much tougher job for us as a board of education,” Ireson said. However, he said some residents in western Sullivan County feel the BOE already has let them down by all but forcing them to send their children to schools in Washington or Hawkins counties or Virginia or possibly private schools if they don’t want their children at the new high school because of long commute times or other reasons.

“What they told me is they want another option,” Ireson of Colonial Heights said. “It’s not as easy as it might seem.”

However, BOE member Matthew Spivey of Kingsport said the state constitution requires counties to provide a free public education and vouchers would make that more difficult and expensive.

“I do not think vouchers do what people think they do, which is provide choices,” Spivey said. “All you do is provide private schools with a way to make a profit.”

Then, at what would have been the meeting’s end, former County Commissioner Dwight King and Derrick Paduch, both of Piney Flats, asked to give public comment. King cited an “explosion” of population in Piney Flats and said the new school should be near population growth in Piney Flats, not centered to serve the populations of Holston Valley and Bluff City middle schools as well as the middle school portion of Mary Hughes School, a K-8 in Piney Flats.

King and Paduch said the county’s proposed new middle school location would simply encourage parents to move their students to Washington County and Johnson City schools, with King predicting within a decade Johnson City would build a school in its portion of Sullivan County to siphon away more students.

“I would be put out if the board would flip-flop after the fact,” BOE Chairman Michael Hughes of Hickory Tree said of the school sites, although Ireson said, “I don’t think everything we told them (commissioners) makes us locked in.”

The Sullivan County Commission knew about the chosen sites but did not vote on them specifically when it approved $140 million in facilities bonds in December.

Paduch said many parents in Piney Flats don’t realize the school system has settled on the middle school site near East, and Thomas said she has brought up concerns mirroring King’s and Paduch’s.

 “You’re going to put a school 15 miles away from the growth,” King said, adding that he did not feel he had a voice in the process since one of his commissioners, Andy Hare, works for the school system and the other, former BOE member Sherry Grubb, is a photographer for the system.


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