Editor’s note: Today we continue a four-part series on the Aug. 6 Sullivan County Board of Education election. Nine people are vying for four seats on the school board.

Third in a series

QUESTION THREE — In your opinion, what is the biggest issue facing the school system and what are your thoughts?


Mark Harris: The biggest issue is the extreme pay discrepancy for our teachers and administrators in comparison to the city school systems in Sullivan County. Highly trained and qualified instructors are lost to other school systems within the county as a result. Sullivan County must make its financial package for its teachers/instructors competitive with the other school systems.

The other issue is the progress of the new West Ridge High School. Access to the school, planning for proper ingress and egress, and a study of potential traffic issues are crucial. The school should not open until all facilities are completed.

Mark Ireson: The biggest issue is the difference in teacher pay across the county. The teachers working for the Sullivan County School system are some of the best in the nation, however, they are paid significantly less than the teachers working for the cities of Bristol and Kingsport.

This would be easier to explain if the Sullivan County Department of Education was not putting millions of dollars into its fund balance (savings account) annually.

I believe the annual school budget should be used to improve the lives of the students currently in our school, not saved for future capital projects.


Matthew Spivey: Right now, the clear answer is COVID-19 and how we can safely educate our children while maintaining our revenues. Our school system is working tirelessly to ensure this happens.

Aside from COVID-19, the biggest issue is ensuring Sullivan County children receive services, facilities, and programs that are comparable to other local school systems. School budgeting and finances are complex, funded by state, federal and local revenue streams. Sullivan County teachers deserve higher pay, and children deserve the best our community can provide. While I appreciate that residents within the city pay more taxes, our local education systems need to have comparable pay for teachers and ongoing capital improvement for all facilities.

Mark Vicars Jr.: We need a school board member who shares the values of Kingsport residents.

It all starts with stewardship. Long-term thinking saves money, and that means we just can’t cut corners on maintenance. There is nothing conservative about moldy ceilings and sweltering graduations with no air conditioning indoors. What we teach is important too. If we don’t teach the cornerstones of civilization, as we are seeing in the streets all across America, we will lose it.

We need a curriculum that teaches and celebrates real American history and free-market economics, not political correctness and socialism. And finally, that means we should never allow Planned Parenthood access to our schools.


Jason Horton: It’s parent/teacher satisfaction. It’s crucial to turn this school system back to a focus on the classroom and show parents and teachers, not only do we value their opinion, but we cherish each and every child for their individual strengths no matter what their address.

We must preserve our student enrollment and that starts with listening and responding when concerns are brought up, and be willing to give extra effort to keep them in our system. Ask yourself these questions: “Have you been given what you were promised?” As a taxpayer, “Have your property taxes been spent wisely?”

Randall Jones: The biggest single issue is the immediate effects of COVID-19 on our students and staff. We must provide the best education whether in the classroom physically or virtually all the while staying in touch with not only the physical but mental well-being of our students and teachers. We always strive to meet all the needs of our students and if we are not physically seeing them and listening to them it is difficult to know how our students are doing. It is important we serve the “whole child.”

The other major issue is continuing to improve all facilities.

Grover Starnes: The single biggest issue facing our schools today is the appropriation of school funds. The top area that should be addressed is the maintenance of our aging schools.

Instead of band-aiding the results of long-term neglect, we should address the core problems to prevent future issues.

Another area of concentration should be the purchase of textbooks. This lack of materials has caused many students to be forced to share books. Our immediate focus needs to be on the coronavirus action plan. I do not want to rush putting faculty and students back into the classroom too early.


Mary Rouse: Currently, the biggest issue facing our school system, teachers, parents, and students is the restarting of school after the COVID-19 shutdown. We have never had to deal with a pandemic in our lifetime with such far-reaching tentacles. Answers to our many and varied questions cannot be found in a textbook. Administrators are having to make decisions about the known but mainly the unknown, striving to do the right thing for the right reasons. As we found out during the shutdown, teachers and administrators are not only educators but also nurses, counselors, cooks, and in many cases, surrogate parents for many of our children. Educators must be valued (and paid) for their true worth.

Jane Thomas: If you had asked me this question prior to March 1, my answer would have been different than what it is today. The biggest issue we face today is COVID-19. We are struggling across this country and around the world on how to deal with COVID-19. It is a bigger issue for public schools than it is for private schools or home schools.

Our county schools are facing many challenges in addition to COVID-19, but we are projecting over 30% of our students will rely on “remote virtual learning” as schools open this fall and it could increase dramatically as the school year progresses.

If we lose more students than we gain in Sullivan County due to the COVID-19 issue, we will be in jeopardy of losing more state and possibly federal funding. Teacher retention as well as student retention will be more challenging than ever. Additional COVID-19 related health and safety issues, including transportation, quarantine guidelines, food service changes, and security measures must be updated. This may require more personnel. All these things will impact our financial budget. With the Sullivan County Commission taking over management of the Department of Education finances, there will be a need for improved cooperation between the commission and the DOE.