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Sullivan BOE divisions over new schools remain

Rick Wagner • Apr 29, 2017 at 8:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Although the Sullivan County Board of Education is moving ahead with the new high school and middle school by purchasing land, divisions over the projects remain on the seven-member panel.

During a called meeting Thursday evening, the BOE voted 5-2 to pay $1.9 million for a middle school site of almost 70 acres just south of Sullivan East Middle School on Weaver Pike and voted 6-1 to spend $2.9 million for a high school site of about 115 acres off Exit 63 of Interstate 81 behind the Jericho Shriners Temple and adjoining Lynn Road.

However, it voted 7-0 to move forward with final paperwork to be approved at the May 4 board meeting.

The middle school vote, for property owned by Ike Fleenor, approves spending more than the county assessor’s office market value but less per acre than two school sites recently bought in Washington County. The 5-2 voted followed a motion by board member Mark Ireson to delay the Fleenor property purchase until a site in Piney Flats offered for $750,000 by Chad Baker could be investigated, which failed by a vote of 2-5. In both cases, the two votes were from Ireson of Colonial Heights and Jane Thomas of the Bluff City area.

As part of the deal, the purchase of a little more than 15 acres of property from Fleenor will be delayed, as will the payment of $426,400, for three years. That leaves the up-front amount paid later this year for the middle school site to be $1,517,080.

Ireson said he wanted “more information” about the Baker property presented to the County Commission Monday. If it is in the right area, Ireson said, it would be “crazy for us not to at least look at that site.” In addition, Ireson said it could save money by lessening the size of a sewer plant replacement/rebuilding for East High since that plant no longer would have to handle the new middle school’s waste.

School board member Jerry Greene of Bristol said the Piney Flats site was the same one Baker presented to the school board in February of 2016, before the real estate search began and before Ireson was elected to the board. Greene also said that it was in the wrong area, too far from Holston Valley Middle, and had high tension power lines running through it. The new 800-student school will serve students currently in Bluff City and Holston Valley middle schools as well as the grades 6-8 students at Mary Hughes School in Piney Flats, a K-8 facility.

“In theory, this could go on forever,” Matthew Spivey of Kingsport said. “I don’t know how we’re going to move forward” if properties are considered after the search conducted by Bristol-based Interstate Realty.

Spivey also challenged Ireson’s statements about saving money on sewage treatment, saying he and others have thrown out numbers without supporting facts or evidence, after which Thomas said the board hadn’t discussed sewer costs very much.

“It’s a beautiful site,” Thomas said. “But there are other properties.”

BOE Chairman Michael Hughes of Hickory Tree said that the Baker property, at one time offered for $1.2 million with site preparation work, was not in the list of potential properties “because it did not meet our criteria at any price.” He said the board could find cheaper property.

Thomas, Baker, former County Commissioner Dwight King of Piney Flats, former County Commission candiate Herschel Glover of Bluff City and Derrick Paduch of Piney Flats have repeatedly called for the middle school to be in Piney Flats and near U.S. Highway 11-E.

Although identifying the two properties publicly Dec. 10 before the County Commission vote on a $140 million school bond issue Dec. 12 may have made the purchase price higher, Hughes said through the whole process no special interests or politics were involved in the selection of properties.

As for the high school site, Ireson has consistently voted against matters relating to it. Thomas asked about the cost of a new access road for the property, and Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski responded that a grant has been submitted on behalf of Sullivan County for an interstate access road and that two county roads also would or could provide access.

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