Despite opposition, Sullivan OKs high school design

Rick Wagner • Updated Nov 14, 2017 at 9:07 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Is Sullivan County’s new high school a move forward to expand programs, including career technical education, or is it only a way to save money without due regard for student safety and achievement?

Both sides were presented at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. The board voted 6-1 to move forward with the design of the new high school off Exit 63 of Interstate 81, with member Mark Ireson of Colonial Heights casting the lone no vote. The school is part of the capital improvements funded from a $140 million countywide bond issue, which is funding projects for the county, Kingsport and Bristol school systems. 

During public comment, Joel Sanders of Colonial Heights presented the board with a petition bearing more than 280 names asking the board not to close Sullivan South High School and not to continue with the new school, which is to be a merger of South and North high schools and much of or possibly all of Central High, until a “certified” traffic safety study is done. He said the signatures were collected during two South football games.

What is the position expressed by board chairman Michael Hughes?

BOE Chairman Michael Hughes of Hickory Tree said the new high school will expand career technical, Advanced Placement and other offerings and programs not fully available at North, South and Central. East High would remain and possibly pick up some students from Central in the fall of 2020.

“A couple of years from now, people will be pleased with what has happened,” Hughes said of the new high school and new $20 million Sullivan East Middle School, for which the rain-delayed groundbreaking is noon Friday at 4500 Weaver Pike, about a mile from East High. He said change, including closing and merging schools, is painful but necessary.

And he acknowledged operational efficiencies are part of reason for the change.

Hughes has long said the projects are moving forward and that projections from a facilities study, used as the basis for the facilities plan, indicate the enrollments at North and South would continue to fall. Also, he said the existing South and Central buildings would be repurposed as middle schools, allowing the closure of some middle schools in states of disrepair. Kingsport is buying North High/Middle for $20 million and plans to turn it into a city middle school.

What are Sanders’ and Ireson’s positions?

On the other hand, Sanders in public comment said that past school closings hurt communities by devaluing property, hurting economic development and causing crime rates to increase, emphasizing that smaller schools and smaller classroom sizes are better for students.

“Until the school is actually built and Sullivan South is actually closed, everything is up for negotiations,” Sanders said after the meeting when asked about the wheels already being in motion for the new high school. All students in the current North and South zones and most if not all in the Central zone in the fall of 2020 are slated to go into the new school near the old Sam’s Wholesale Club property.

“It is not in the best interest of the students, it’s in the best interest of the budget,” Sanders told the board during public comment, held at the end of the meeting after the vote to proceed with the high school design, which was presented to the board in a work session before the meeting.

Sanders said the petition asks for a state-certified traffic safety audit, including I-81 and State Route 126, before the school is built; all facilities studies, fire and electrical inspections and the amount of money needed to bring existing buildings up to code be maintained online by the school system. He said it also asks the board make South a “buffer school” adjoining Kingsport like Indian Springs Elementary.

“I’ve made no comment other than the fact I’m against this” new high school,” Ireson said after the meeting of his no vote, one in a series of no votes or abstentions on matters pertaining to the new $60 million high school. “I still think it’s a bad idea.”