Blountville neighbors opposed to schools being considered as site for new county jail

Shown above are some of the several hundred Blountville residents who have signed a petition seeking to prevent the site of Blountville Middle School and Blountville Elementary School from being considered as the location for a new Sullivan County jail. The schools are set to be shuttered at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Blountville Middle’s original section was built in the early 1930s as Blountville High School, with the elementary school added in the late 1940s. The high school became a middle school when Sullivan Central High School opened in 1968.

After opposition by neighbors and other Sullivan County commissioners, not to mention the prospect of tens of millions of dollars in additional costs, Commissioner Dwight King’s proposal to use Blountville Elementary and Middle schools for a new county jail died a quick death.

So what to do with the schools when they close permanently in several months? Priority number one should be to return them to the tax rolls.

When King suggested using the schools for a new jail rather than expanding the existing jail, Blountville residents near the schools wasted no time in taking up the cause of protecting their home investments. Residents quickly gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition in opposition. Meanwhile, preliminary estimates revealed that relocating the site for the new jail — plans for which are all but complete — would not only significantly increase the cost but delay the project by years.

That, in a word, is untenable. Fortunately, County Mayor Richard Venable said the notion of moving the new jail’s construction to the site of the two schools isn’t likely to advance based on feedback he has gotten from other commissioners. Thinking outside the box is commendable, but a second thought on this idea should have dispensed with it.

Mayor Venable said area residents should have input in what happens to the property once it is no longer used by the county school system. “That’s exactly what ought to happen,” Venable said. “They should voice their concerns. If nothing else, (the topic) has brought out the discussion of the future use of the schools and that property.”

Residents are concerned that what happens to the site will impact the market value of their homes. They suggest the site be used for something that serves the community, and they have a lot of ideas including county offices, county archives, expansion of the Sullivan County Public Library which is near the schools, relocation of the Sullivan County Department of Education into the building, training facilities, a community center, a senior center, farmers market events, keeping the recreational amenities open for public use, and a dog park.

One resident said if the school buildings can’t be repurposed, the whole property should become a county park centered around the existing ballfields and track.

Those are good ideas, which all have something in common: They keep some 27 acres of valuable real estate off the tax rolls. Blountville is fairly well hemmed in, and the schools are located in the heart of the community of 3,100 residents, which is also the county seat.

It’s often said that schools are the heart of any small town, and tearing them down — even for some good purpose such as new housing — isn’t always popular even if the structures are too old to be economically renovated. The county school board has voted to hire an appraiser to get a value on the property.

“It should be worth considerably more money than any school we’ve sold,” said Board of Education Chairman Randall Jones.

Jones said that if the County Commission has no interest in the property, it could be sold by sealed bid or public auction, although the board would reserve the right to refuse any and all bids.

Neighbors should have a voice in what happens to this property, and at every step the school board and County Commission should ensure transparency as decisions are made. But the first responsibility of these two bodies is to county residents as a whole, and that demands that the priority for disposition of the property is to return the highest value to the county.