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State to conduct traffic study of potential road improvements near two Sullivan County schools

BLOUNTVILLE — Plans are moving forward for a traffic pattern study on Weaver Pike at the entrances of Sullivan East High School and Sullivan East Middle School in an effort to make those sections of the state road safer for students and the general public.

The Sullivan County Commission agreed in a unanimous vote last month to ask the Tennessee Department of Transportation to perform the study, specifically to look at adding a right-hand turn lane to the southbound side of the road near the high school, and to consider adding traffic signals to the entrances at each school.

East High Principal Andy Hare said he has since been contacted by TDOT officials who indicated a study will be conducted.

“There’s a great need for improvements to the road,” Hare told the Times News on Thursday. “It’s something I’ve been asking for since I’ve been here.”

TDOT Community Relations Officer Mark Nagi said the studies such as this are conducted to see if those requested changes are “necessary.”

In a letter to county officials asking for help, Hare, principal at East High for five years, noted the two schools aren’t a destination only during the school day. Hare said East High alone hosts 165 events per year, many of which accommodated well over 1,000 people.

“This is more than a school issue,” Hare wrote. “It is a community issue that impacts every citizen that travels down this state highway.”

Weaver Pike’s numeric designation is State Route 358.

On school days, East High has over 850 students, more than 60 teachers, and 40 support staff, Hare said, and the middle school has similar numbers in each category.

While morning traffic is heavy, arrivals at the high school generally occur over nearly an hour’s time, Hare said, with the most congestion being between 7:35 a.m. and 7:50 a.m. Hare said students begin arriving at 7 a.m. and classes begin at 8 a.m.

But there’s a mass exodus by most students when classes dismiss at 3 p.m., Hare said, and he personally puts on a reflective vest and stands in Weaver Pike to hand-direct traffic at the student entrance to the high school. A school resource officer does the same at the school’s main entrance, Hare said.

Once a study is completed, any recommendations for improvements and any request for local funding will come back to the Sullivan County Commission for review and potential approval.

Watch now: Sullivan school board declares Blountville schools surplus

Randall Jones, Sullivan County Board of Education chairman


BLOUNTVILLE — Two former Sullivan County schools, one in the county seat and the other in Colonial Heights, could fetch more than $1 million each.

Sullivan County’s school board Thursday night unanimously voted to declare the Blountville Elementary/Middle schools property surplus. However, it is holding off taking bids on the property until after Jan. 1 to see if the Sullivan County Commission wants to pay more than $1 million for it. Another option is to put it in a real estate agent’s hands, which would be an option decided later.

In addition, the board voted 5-1 with one position vacant because of a resignation, to put a deed restriction banning pre-K through 12 schools on the Blount-ville property, as well as the former Colonial Heights Middle and former Sullivan Gar- dens Middle.

However, school board members said Sullivan Gar- dens, the former Sullivan West High, may never be sold because it is so close to the Sullivan Gardens Elementary building.


The deed restriction, if it remains, would be turning down a $1.4 million offer Lakeway Christian Schools, operator of Tri-Cities Christian Academy, has made for Colonial Heights Middle. However, it was made to a county official, not to the school board.

Bob Brown, executive director of Lakeway, said the Christian school would be willing to pay $1.4 million for Colonial Heights or to trade the current Tri-Cities Christian building near Tri-Cities Airport and some cash for the former county middle school.

“We have put on the table a $1.4 million offer on the property,” Brown told the school board, which had received no copy of the letter.

The Colonial Heights property has a deed restriction it can be used only as a school or for development, which Brown said the school board has rescinded. “Now they’re (county school board member) entering their own restrictions, which are going to go on into perpetuity,” Brown said.

However, BOE Chairman Randall Jones said the new deed restrictions did not rescind the old one but instead added to it.

The bottom line is that a college or post-secondary school still could operate in one of the buildings, Jones said. Kingsport City Schools and businessman Allyn Hood also have expressed interest in Colonial Heights for an elementary site and a community center, respectively.

The lone no vote on the deed restriction came from Mark Ireson of Colonial Heights. Ireson said he feared the former middle school could become an abandoned “eyesore in our county.”

“I would rather it be used and something our community can be proud of,” Ireson said.

County Mayor Richard Venable confirmed by phone after the meeting that in October he met twice with Brown and Britt Stone, head of schools for Tri-Cities Christian. Venable said Brown offered in a letter to buy Colonial Heights from the county for $1.4 million after the county acquired it from the school system.

The appraised value of the 15.5-acre Colonial Heights land and building is $775,000, according to a recent appraisal the school system received.

”We are a regional school,” Stone said after the meeting of the non-denominational school that is serving 33 students whose families moved from out of state to the Tri-Cities.

Of 83 students new to the school this year, he said only eight went to Sullivan County last year, with others coming from homeschooled families or other counties and cities.

“We’re here. We’re not going anywhere,” Brown said of Tri-Cities Christian, which is building a new high school on property off Exit 56 to be a new 6-12 school and wants Colonial Heights for an elementary school.

Venable also said he is trying to set up a meeting among Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski, Jones, himself and a few other officials to discuss the former schools.

“We do need to be talking,” Venable said. “I visited with Dr. Brown, the principal of Tri-Cities Christian and their attorney. I’m glad they met with the school board tonight. That’s obviously a decision I couldn’t make. That’s a whole commission decision.”


Venable said a resolution expressing commission interest in the Blountville property was withdrawn earlier this year and that the Blountville schools needed a lot of maintenance.

The Blountville schools property was appraised at $1.57 million for 26.7 acres, although about 1 or 1.5 acres would remain with the county library. Of the land, 12.25 acres of football field is deeded to the county via eminent domain, while 10.68 acres and 1.49 acres are deeded to the school system and 5.1 acres has no known deed.

The eminent domain was for the land to be used for school purposes, and the school system has maintained all the property, Jones said.

Aside from ownership issues, there is the matter of a 1949 Whiteside Masonic Lodge easement that seems to give perpetual free use of a second-floor room in the old high school section as long as the building exists and if it is destroyed by fire or calamity similar space in any replacement building, as well as cafeteria use not interfering with school cafeteria use.

Hull said he has talked with a lodge leader and lodge lawyer about the issue with no resolution, although he said the lodge is looking at other options, Hull said the easement wouldn’t transfer to a new owner, although the lodge’s attorney doesn’t agree.

Among other potential buyers for the Blountville schools is Michael Laisure, a Piney Flats businessman who has turned the former Bluff City and Holston Valley middle schools into community hubs for not-for-profit community and faith-based groups.

Festival of Trees returns for 7th year

KINGSPORT — In just a few weeks, LampLight Theatre hopes to spread a little Christmas cheer throughout the community, while raising money for a good cause at the same time.

LampLight Theatre is hosting its seventh annual Festival of Trees event at the MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center Nov. 14-27.

Businesses and individuals throughout the area have already begun signing up to donate fully decorated items such as Christmas trees, wreaths, swags, centerpieces, gingerbread houses, and topiaries to be put on exhibit and up for bid.

The proceeds from the auction will benefit Hope and Love Outreach — a program for local “at-risk” and underprivileged students.

HALO provides free services throughout the year for these students including Christmas gifts for them and their siblings, along with a Christmas dinner box for their family, a week of summer camp in the Smoky Mountains, and backpacks and school supplies for back-to-school.

The public is invited to attend and bid on the items through a planned silent auction. Items will have a “Purchase Now” price, so people can immediately purchase them and bring them home, or they can bid in the silent auction. If you win in the silent auction, you can pick up your prize between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Nov. 28.

You’ll also be able to vote on your favorite holiday tree/decoration, which will create some friendly competition among participants. A variety of themed trees and décor will line the halls of the convention center and create a magical wonderland to begin the holiday season.

If you would like to participate in this fundraiser by donating and decorating a tree or other Christmas item, you’re asked to contact Nonna Arrants at (423) 343-1766.

Primary colors

The weather forecast, with overnight temperatures expected to dip below freezing through the weekend, is a stark reminder that winter is just around the corner. But the trees at Bays Mountain Park are making sure that fall goes out in a colorful blaze of glory.

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Ballad to consult with regional ethics committee before implementing federal vaccine mandate

Ballad Health said in a statement Thursday that the hospital system will consult with its regional ethics committee to develop a vaccination policy, after the federal government set a Jan. 4 deadline for workers at health care facilities that treat Medicare and Medicaid patients to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The ethics committee is comprised of physicians, clergy, nursing and community members. Ballad’s CEO Alan Levine, who signed the statement, said “it is important we receive input from these experts prior to developing our policy.” The federal mandate does not provide a weekly testing option for those who refuse the vaccine, meaning Ballad has little choice but to implement a mandate in the near future. Exemptions are available for religious or medical reasons.

More than 70% of the hospital system’s patients are covered by federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and “the failure of Ballad Health to comply would be devastating to our region, as our hospitals would not be able to remain open.”

“I fully understand there is also a risk of losing some staff who do not wish to be vaccinated, also potentially risking our capability to serve the region during a period of national staffing shortages,” Levine said. “We will simply have to do the best we can do, and we will adjust accordingly as we strive to optimize our ability to serve our region.”

In testimony to a congressional subcommittee last month, Levine said the hospital system has been concerned about the impact a vaccine mandate could have on its workforce, though Ballad would have little choice but to implement it — something Levine reiterated in his statement on Thursday.

COVID-19 worsens Ballad Health’s nursing shortage

“Ballad Health has resisted doing any mandates related to the COVID-19 vaccines, in large measure due to some of the concerns expressed by some team members who felt they needed more time to evaluate their personal choice,” the statement said. “We have publicly expressed our concern about ensuring we have the appropriate staff in place during a major national shortage of staffing, and we have urged that this mandate not occur at this time.

“In my testimony to Congress two weeks ago, I again expressed our concerns about the impact a mandate could have,” the statement continued, noting that the decision has been taken out of their hands. “But this policy has now been implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and it is clear they intend to enforce it.”

Levine said about 63% of Ballad’s employees are fully vaccinated, with 95% of their physicians also inoculated. Levine again encouraged vaccination, and said Ballad will provide more information when it receives input from the ethics committee, and will “work hard to get our policy in place as soon as practical.” In order to meet the Jan. 4 deadline, employees would need to receive their first shot of one of the three approved vaccines sometime in early to to mid-December.

“Each of us has had our own reasons for choosing to become vaccinated, and I do believe the evidence shows that introduction of the vaccine has reduced death and suffering in our region,” Levine said. “I know our nurses, doctors and support staff on the front lines understand this as well.”

In a separate statement, Ballad said it’s reviewing the announcement from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, and Ballad officials said they are concerned about the impact a mandate will have on the system, which is already suffering staffing shortages, and could negatively impact service and the ability to respond to the region’s medical needs, “though we have no choice but to comply.”

“Ballad Health must comply with federal rules for participation in the Medicare program, or we risk jeopardizing the very existence of our hospitals and other critical services needed to serve our region,” the statement said.

Tennessee suing to block vax mandate for federal contractors

Also on Thursday, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III announced the state has filed a lawsuit with the states of Ohio and Kentucky challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors, which also now has a compliance deadline of Jan. 4 — a deadline that was extended Thursday from Dec. 8.

“Unless we intervene, federal contractors in Tennessee will be forced to make sense of the mandate’s many inconsistencies that require their entire workforce be vaccinated or face potential blacklisting and loss of future federal contracts,” Slatery said in a statement. “That is simply unworkable and this lawsuit seeks to stop it.”

In September, Biden signed executive order 14042 to ensure that entities with federal contracts provide adequate COVID-19 safeguards for workers performing on or in connection with a federal contract or contract-like instrument. Guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce, issued on Sept. 24, says federal contractors and subcontractors with a covered contract will be required to follow the following workplace safety protocols:

• COVID-19 vaccination of covered contractor employees, except in limited circumstances where an employee is legally entitled to an accommodation;

• Compliance by individuals, including covered contractor employees and visitors, with the guidance related to masking and physical distancing while in covered contractor workplaces; and

• Designation by covered contractors of a person or persons to coordinate COVID-19 workplace safety efforts at covered contractor workplaces.

East Tennessee State University, which receives nearly $40 million in funding from the federal government annually, sent a memo to employees late last month advising them that ETSU officials were “actively working to evaluate the impact” of the order, which would affect “hundreds” of employees. In the memo, university officials said it’s imperative they do everything they can to maintain that federal support, and said they expect to be subject to the mandate.