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Is West Ridge High in limbo? BOE tables vote on bids

Rick Wagner • Jul 12, 2018 at 10:58 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes had planned to sign a more than $60 million contract with Blountville-based J.A. Street & Associates to build the new West Ridge High School after Thursday night’s called board meeting.

But that was not to be. The only approval vote at the meeting was to recommend the $84.1 million 2018-19 school budget, minus any mention of the $4.8 million in reserve funds the board plans to use for athletic facilities to supplement bond proceeds, and send that plan on to the County Commission.

Some opponents of the 1,700-student “mega school” in the audience of almost 60 said during public comments they knew what they said would make no difference and the board would go ahead and approve the bid, which would be a milestone in the six years of public input, debate and money wrangling about the new high school — already under site preparation — and the new Sullivan East Middle School already under construction.

So the audience cheered and clapped when the board voted 4-3 to table the bid vote on a motion by board member and school foe Mark Ireson of Colonial Heights. Ireson said he didn’t have time to review documents handed to him as he walked into the meeting. 

The board voted to consider the bid again on Aug. 1, a day before the Aug. 2 election in which three seats on the seven-member board are on the county general election ballot.

After the meeting, Hughes said that’s also a day he will be working out of town and may be unavailable to attend electronically, which is allowed under Tennessee law.

The votes to table came from Ireson, motion seconder Jane Thomas of Bluff City, Dan Wells of the Lynn Garden area and Matthew Spivey of Kingsport. Those against tabling were Hughes of Bluff City, Vice Chairman Randall Jones of Indian Springs and Jerry Greene of Bristol.

In non-partisan races, Hughes in District 4 faces a challenge from Derrick Paduch of Piney Flats, while Wells of District 2 faces a challenge from Paul Robinson of Bloomingdale, one of 12 people who spoke out against the school in public comment. The school drew no public voices of support. Greene, of District 6, is not seeking re-election, but former teachers Randall Gilmore of Bristol and Gee Gee Hillman of Blountville are running.

WHY AUG. 1?

Ireson said he would be gone to Wisconsin from this coming Tuesday through July 31, and he suggested a called meeting date of Aug. 1, although Spivey questioned that as a move “just to stop the project.” Before the vote, Jones and Spivey said much of the information in the 80-page packet, about 60 pages of it, was the boilerplate bid information the board previously approved, but Ireson said he wanted more time to look at the other 20 pages. After the vote, Spivey suggested this coming Monday, and Spivey said today (Friday) would be fine, but board attorney Pat Hull pointed out that did not allow enough time for public notice for a meeting. Jones said he would be unavailable Monday, anyway.

However, nobody mentioned the option of adjourning the meeting until today, which would have made a second called meeting and public notice unnecessary.

Business Manager Ingrid DeLoach and Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said the bid, received on July 5, was good for 30 days.

Also for time considerations, the board decided to go ahead with budget approval in a 7-0 vote after DeLoach told members the school budget was the only one not submitted to the County Commission and that the $4.8 million from fund balance could come later.

WHAT DID COMMENTERS SAY?

The board voted the same 4-3 split to allow public comment, normally not allowed at called meetings. Many complained about the danger of travel on Interstate 81 and lack of a good road off it into the campus, including a potential road the County Commission recently voted not to fund. Here are other things some said:

— Jean Peavler of Bloomingdale: “Bloomingdale’s going to turn into a community of riffraff if we don’t stop this.” Plans are for Sullivan North to close as a county middle and high school when West Ridge opens in 2020, leaving Ketron Elementary as the only county school in Bloomingdale. North already has been sold to Kingsport for $20 million for use as a city middle school starting in 2021. The new school also would house current South zone students and most from Central, with some shifted to East, the only other county high school as of 2020.

— Cristy Frazier of Colonial Heights: “We’re not ignorant” and know Kingsport officials want the school so state Route 357, or Airport Parkway Extension north, toward U.S. Highway 11-W will become a reality. “That’s what the city of Kingsport wants. That’s what the Kingsport Chamber wants. That’s what Eastman (Chemical Co.) wants. It’s for the infrastructure.”

— School board candidate Robinson: “Let the new board that comes in, let them take care of it.”

— Sports journalist Steve Wilmoth of Kingsport: “My fear is we’re fast-tracking the school and we don’t have enough money to do it the right way.” 

 Danny Collier said a new high school is needed but not at the chosen location, adding that the system should spend the extra money on artificial football turf in an area where “God, guns and football” rule.

— Former school board member and Republican County Commission candidate Todd Broughton of Bloomingdale said he fears too many corners will be cut at the career technical education-focused high school — like during the renovation of Ketron Middle into Ketron Elementary. “Ketron was supposed to be a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school. It’s not. It was supposed to have a talking wall. It doesn’t.”

— Independent county mayoral candidate and former NFL star Gerald Sensabaugh of Kingsport said: “Nobody is happy with the process this new school is taking on,” lamenting “improper planning” and saying parents instead would send their students to high schools in Kingsport, Scott County and Hawkins County. Other speakers mentioned homeschooling as an option.

 

 

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