Audit shows salary increases without BOE’s approval


Staff Writer

The Washington County Board of Education has been focusing on next year’s budget as of late, but at the Thursday, June 15, meeting to review the audit for the previous year, it was clear that some old messes may require some cleaning up as well.

According to the audit ending June 30, 2016, unauthorized expenditures with overages in the highway fund, the rural debt service fund and the capital projects fund were just some of the issues found by accounting firm Blackburn, Childers and Steagall, who presented the audit.

But what raised the most questions from BOE members were the salary increases that did not receive approval from the board.

The report states that salaries exceeded appropriations in 32 of 73 salary line items of the general purpose school fund by amounts ranging from $10 to $283,399. According to Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-301, the board must approve salary increases, stating that “the director of schools can recommend to the board salaries for teachers in accordance with the salary schedule and the salaries and wages of all other employees nominated by the director of schools.”

“It’s obviously a clear violation of code that you’re not supposed to do that,” BCS Partner Melissa Steagall-Jones said during the review. “The director of schools can have great input in that, but they can’t authorize that.

“Do I feel there was ill intent in it? No I don’t. If I thought it was fraud and it rose to criminal intent, I would have turned it over to the state of Tennessee. They have seen this report and they did not question that. Do I think there was an error? Yes, absolutely.”

The Washington County Department of Education saw a new finance director and an accounting software conversion in that same year, which could have brought about an error, Steagall-Jones added.

“I think some people were surprised that some unauthorized things had been done without our approval,” BOE Chairman Jack Leonard told the Herald & Tribune. “That’s why I asked that we go back and rescind those pay increases, since we didn’t approve them. So that might be something the board looks at once she gets that information to us.”

Board members requested further information as to who the increases were slated to go to and by how much. The Herald & Tribune has made a public records request for that information as well.

Steagall-Jones said a previous finance director was one of the employees listed. She also said this could have been due to the software conversion and the extra hours the finance director had put in because of that conversion.

“With all the changes that we have had, it’s wise that we’re going and looking at it (specific salaries affected) just to be sure,” Leonard said.

“I’ve stated many times that this isn’t our money. This is the people’s money and this is money that’s been approved to be used for education and we need to be sure that it’s being used correctly and wisely.”

Commissioners consider public safety requests


Staff Writer

Each commissioner at the Washington County Commission’s Budget meeting on Wednesday, June 14, knew the 2018 fiscal year budget would be a tight one—but that didn’t stop them from searching for room to add three additional public safety requests in that same slim budget.

Washington County Emergency Communications District (911) requested $74,556 to enhance dispatching procedures and staffing, Washington County-Johnson City EMS requested $206,000 request for additional staff and vehicle purchases and the Washington County Volunteer Fire Departments requested $425,000 to add paid firefighting positions to six stations. The committee unanimously agreed to reevaluate the coming fiscal year’s budget in an attempt to add the three public service requests.

This, however, comes after an almost $1 million additional healthcare cost to the budget that Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said could be even more by the following year’s budget.

“Let me share with you the reason why this has not been included in the budget,” Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said. “We’ve all experienced the difficulties we’ve had this year with the budget. We know the uncertainty we are facing moving forward with our healthcare costs. All three of these requests (from the three public safety entities) require reoccurring money—I can’t tell you where it’s going to come from.

“There is not a source of reoccurring funding that could pay for this, as desperately as we need it. The Volunteer Fire Department (request) has been probably as big a concern as I have had since I’ve been in office. It is a high priority.”

Eldridge said the county has talked about adding additional firefighters to county fire departments for at least 20 years. The proposed plan would add two volunteers who would receive stipends for the shift work they would perform to the Embreeville, Fall Branch, Gray, Limestone, Nolichuckey and Sulphur Springs Volunteer Fire Departments for $425,000.

The two volunteers added to each station would work during daytime hours Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. During the budget meeting, Fall Branch Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Dawson said volunteer fire departments across the county are in need of personnel hours.

“This day and age, it takes almost both people in the home with a job,” Dawson said. “It’s just like anything else; volunteerism is probably dropping more so than it probably ever has before as far as being able to go out and find people that are willing to be qualified to do the job. Every department in the county sees that problem in the day time.”

Dawson also said adding two volunteers to the six fire departments would enable the departments to assist the county should a daytime fire occur. For now, Dawson said, the departments house a lower number of volunteers during the day than the number they would need if such a fire were to occur.

“Two people are not going to be able to fight a big fire, but you’re going to be able to respond, to be able to do something which can give you more time until help gets there,” Dawson explained. “That’s the biggest thing.

“We had a structure fire the other night that Gray, Sulphur Springs and Fall Branch responded on. When we got done and I did the count on them, we had 31 people. If that had happened in the daytime hours, we might have had 10 or 12.”

County Commissioner and committee Chairman Joe Grandy also mentioned these shift-work roles could help in the survival of volunteer fire departments as the new roles could potentially bring more volunteers into the organization. Grandy also expressed his concern in trying to fit public safety requests into the budget.

“I understand our obligations, but it’s really troubling to me that we are budgeting in items that are non-profits that we could potentially spend on some public safety issues,” Grandy said. ”I think that we need to get right back into this thing, go through our budget and let’s talk about priorities. All three of these are public safety, high priority—much higher than other things in our budget.”

The committee agreed to have Commissioner and Director of Finance and Administration Mitch Meredith reexamine the budget to see if other items could be reduced. The next budget committee meeting is on Wednesday, June 21, at 8 a.m. in the courthouse conference room on the first floor.

Washington County schools see slight staff reduction


Staff Writer

With a newly adjusted budget, the Washington County Board of Education is barreling through budget season.

Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton and Finance Director Brad Hale presented the BOE’s budget to the Washington County Commission’s Budget Committee on Friday June 9. The committee sent the budget on to Finance Director Mitch Meredith to put into resolution-form before they vote on the budget once again at their upcoming Wednesday June 14 meeting.

The BOE had previously presented a $1.44 million out-of-balance budget to the committee, but this time, in an effort to decrease the amount of reserve dollars used for the board’s budget each year, Hale and Halliburton came equipped with a budget that will use $1.29 million from the budget’s fund balance reserves.

Hale said the budget saw $191,000 in reductions. He also said new revenue estimates closed some of the gap on the budget and helped to reduce the allotted diesel fuel expense fund (saving $75,000), the electricity fund (saving $37,000), after school program salaries due to overestimation with the 2-percent raise for all school employees (saving $34,000) and an adjusted audit fee also saved the BOE $45,000.

The budget still included a two-percent raise for all school employees, but it also saw some cuts; Halliburton said 10 teachers (five retirements or resignations and five non-renewals) and eight to nine instructional aides’ positions would not be refilled.

“When you lose 800 students over a six-year period, you have to reduce your staff,” Halliburton said at the board’s June 8 budget meeting. “There is not a need for the amount of instructional aides.”

Halliburton also said it was up to school principals to make contract renewal decisions.

“It’s my job as director to support the principals in those decisions because, after all, we’re not in there running their school,” Halliburton said. “We had some employees that were missing as much as 35 days a school year. And given that you have the summer off, two weeks off for Christmas break and then there’s spring break and fall break — we have to have employees that are actually going to be on the job. As director, I will always support my principals in these decisions.”

During the BOE’s June 8 budget meeting, board member Mary Beth Dellinger said she’s seen push back from teachers in the community when it comes to a reduced number of instructional aides.

“I’ve had teachers call me upset about losing instructional assistants. I’ve asked the teachers which personnel they deem more valuable and they overwhelmingly responded they wanted instructional assistants over academic coaches,” Dellinger said at the June 8 meeting. “These academic coaches they currently have, they feel, are sufficient.”

Originally, the budget called for four academic coaches whose positions are designed to improve student academic skill and performance. At a previous budget meeting, the board voted to reduce that down to two academic coaches. The goal was to have an academic coach at each school, and with two added academic coaches and with some schools sharing academic coaches, each school will have access to an academic coach according to the presented budget.

“(By not adding two academic coaches) you’re going to be telling four schools, ‘We don’t value you and we’re not going to put at least a part-time academic coach in your school. But all these other schools are going to have an academic coach.’ What are you going to tell parents out in the community?” board member and BOE Chairman Jack Leonard said. “And most of these schools are in my district. It’s hard for me to tell people in Lamar and at South Central that you can’t have an academic coach. But Gray, Boones Creek and all them can. We’ve got to pull up our scores on our end of the county just like they do on the other side.”

In light of staff reductions and budget adjustments, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge commended the board, Hale and Halliburton on the decisions they’ve made throughout the budget season.

“To me, you’re doing what you need to do. You’re taking care of your staff and you are emphasizing the priorities that are going to improve the outcomes of the school system,” Eldridge said.

The next budget committee meeting will be held on Wednesday June 14, at 9 a.m.

Group forms to counter local fluoride vote



For a concerned group of regional health professionals, Jonesborough’s fluoride issues did not end with the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s Feb. 13 vote to discontinue adding the substance to their local drinking water.

In fact, for these doctors, dentists and public health administrators, it has actually been just the beginning.

“The health department was contacted by so many individuals who were interested in the issue,” explained Dr. David Kirschke, regional medical director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department. “We didn’t look to form a group but it just sort of happened.”

Drawn together by a mutual concern over the possible impact in the region from the BMA decision, the list soon grew to include other such local health figures as Dr. Joseph Florence, Jonesborough resident and director of rural programs at the Quillen College of Medicine, Dr. Paul Stanton, retired surgeon, current county commissioner and former president of East Tennessee State University and Dr. David Wood, chair of pediatrics for Quillen, as well as 20 or so more professionals from medical, dental and public health fields.

They meet monthly on the campus of East Tennessee State University.

“The long and short of it is children benefit from fluoride,” Dr. Stanton explained. “It’s been shown for decades that where there is fluoride in the water consumed, there are much, much less cavities.”

“Most all of the people who are attending (these meetings) are on the same page as far as a concern over the decision the was made. And its not going to let up. In fact, it’s going to grow.”

The Jonesborough board’s February decision, passed by a 3 to 1 vote with longtime alderman and vice mayor Terry Countermine as the lone dissenting voice on the board, was sparked by concerns about the possible negative impact the chemical could have on people’s health. “The board worked very hard to provide a balanced response,” Browning said. At the crux of the issue was an issue of risk verses responsibility, and nobody could provide documentation that fluoride doesn’t hurt the body with longtime use, he said.

Implementation was originally set for July, and according to Town Administrator Bob Browning, that plan is still on track.

That means the day when Jonesborough’s water will become fluoride-additive free is rapidly approaching. And this recently formed, pro-fluoride group is currently working hard to discover a way to reverse the board’s decision.

There are, they agree, several ways to do this.

According to Dr. Kirschke, the key is really about providing accurate information. If the facts had been complete and the town had made such a decision, he said, he would have respected that right.

“But I felt like the citizens of Jonesborough made the decision based on false information,” he said. “I feel a responsibility and I would just like the decision to be based on solid, good evidence.”

Part of that evidence, proponents believe, can be found in February’s decision by the Environmental Protection Agency — released after the BMA vote — that examines in detail a petition submitted in Nov. of 2016 to ban fluoride from water.

The EPA’s final decision was in favor of leaving fluoride levels at current rates.

“I encourage you to read the EPA report,” Alderman Countermine said. “It contradicts by good scientific research what was said in the petition.”

Another key bit of evidence that didn’t get full disclosure, according to these physicians, was the issue of ingestion of fluoride and its importance.

For example, Dr. Kirschke said, “When you ingest fluoride, not only does it topically help the teeth, but it gets into your salivary glands and bathes the teeth.”

He added that seniors also benefit from this constant bath. “Actually older adults are at high risk for cavities as gums recede,” he said.

And there is so much more,  they say.

Asked why such information didn’t make itself known clearly at the meeting and public hearing held before the vote, and the reply is often that — as is the case with Dr. Bill Kennedy, a retired physician and well-known Jonesborough figure — it was hard to believe the board would make such a decision.

“I have huge respect for this Board of Mayor and Aldermen,” said Dr. Kennedy, who currently heads the Jonesborough Historic Zoning Commission. “They are in my mind certainly among the best boards in my 40 years in the town of Jonesborough.”

“I thought, ‘They’ll straighten this issue out in no time flat.’ How wrong I was.”

In all his years of public service for the town, Dr. Kennedy said, he always made it a policy to never make comments on town decisions unrelated to his role in historic preservation.

But this case, he said, things were different.

“To me, it’s going against a major victory in public health in the 20th century,” Dr. Kennedy said. “Some of them consider (fluoride) to be therapeutic from the health point of view. But in my view it is more closely related to having clean water to prevent disease. It’s akin to requiring electrical wiring up to code for safety. It’s akin to building codes for safety. It’s at that kind of level and it’s that obvious.”

Dr. Kennedy espouses a plan of action that would involve one-on-one time with board members to ensure each receives a full understanding of the facts.

“I’m hoping that they will look at the highlights of the information — I don’t expect  them to wade through all the research,” he said. “I’m hoping they will be swayed by the overwhelming conclusion and assessment of the science by the local and health community. They need to be aware of the science.”

If education doesn’t work, then other members of the group are looking into the political realm.

Dr. Johnny Johnson, with the American Fluoridation Society who faced a similar battle in Florida years ago, found that when education failed to work, a concentrated campaign to replace board members who were opposed to fluoride was successful.

“We needed up with an election which was really a referendum election,” he said. Two candidates who were more favorably inclined toward fluoride ended up replaced the two long-term board members who had voted for its removal.

Dr. Allen Burleson, a well-known Jonesborough dentist who has been at the forefront of this battle from the very beginning, agrees.

“This is about the children,” he said. “If you have children or grandchildren, this affects them.

“I love Jonesborough. I love the people of Jonesborough. But this one issue has already cast a negative aspect. If we have to get in the political arena, we will. Whatever we have to do for our children…”

Dr. Patrick Stern, a retired pediatrician who has grandchildren in the Grandview school, believes a legal course of action could even be in the cards.

“Not one time in my career in a paper, in a presentation in anything, has fluoride ever come up as toxic,” he said. But damage specifically to children in the area could be immense. And, like Dr. Burleson, he is intent on doing whatever is needed.

That’s because the cost, these health professionals maintain, is much too high to ignore.

Dr. Florence said he has witnessed the results first hand when he was living and working in rural Kentucky.

“There I saw a lot of problems with fluoride because we had lot of well water,” he said. “Part of my responsibility as a primary care doctor was to hand out fluoride to kids.

“Not everyone took it. And it was a real problem. Most of my work is done out in the rural community and I continued to see a lot of dental problem. It was the #1 issue, no question about it.

“Yeah, there are lots of ways to get fluoride, but they don’t. To me it’s a no brainer.”

As for the hazards fluoride may pose, Dr. Kennedy, Dr. Stanton and Dr. Stern, as well as others,  argue that decades of research has yet to support any realistic risk, and the majority of the medical community continues to support the proper use of fluoride.

“Some people talk about danger of fluoride,” Dr. Stanton said, “but the controlled levels they have it at is not going to do anything negative.”

“I think what we’re doing in Jonesborough is not the right thing.”

Town police face drug fund revenue decrease


Staff Writer

The Town of Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen waded through its preliminary budget meeting at town hall Wednesday, May 31, but not before voting unanimously to approve the lease of nine police department vehicles the BMA initially authorized as a budget item at the May 8 meeting.

Jonesborough Police Chief Ron Street said the department reduced the number of vehicles from 10 to nine in its budget. The nine Ford Explorers will cost $274,962.12 while other equipment such as radios (at $82,144.50) and graphics for the cars (at $2,800) add up to a total of $359,906.62. The resolution that passed at the May 31 meeting also included a recommendation for either a three or four-year lease for the vehicles.

The police department is also facing a decrease in revenue for the drug fund that dropped nearly $5,000 compared to last year’s total.

“We cannot tell at this point whether there’s a reduction in the amount of arrests that are being made or whether it’s some type of bookkeeping error. I went back and looked at the last two years, the number of arrests that have been made,” Street added. “There’s only a three-arrest difference in a year ago and this year. So the numbers are still there. It could be something that the courts are not collecting. It could be a combination of things.”

Director of Public Safety Craig Ford also mentioned asset forfeiture laws—which is the legal process in which police officers can seize a person’s property if they are suspected of being involved in criminal activity—and the changes those laws have seen in Tennessee this year in relation to the police department’s decline in drug fund revenue.

“There are several things that have changed about that. The asset forfeitures, the way they used to be are no longer that way. So we don’t get that large portion of the money we’re used to,” Street added. “We’re seeing a lot of changes such as seizing of vehicles and confiscating vehicles; used to you could get them on one DUI and now it takes two (with prior conviction). So the law’s going against us in some asset forfeiture funds that’s going to cost us an amount of money to reduce.”

Town Administrator Bob Browning said that the drug fund had built to the point they were able to purchase a vehicle for the police department in this fiscal year that could also be used for the K-9 units. But now, as a result to the revenue decrease, the police department doesn’t plan to decrease K-9 expenses, but rather sustain the fund.

“We’re for the most part just going to maintain our K-9 program through the use of those drug funds,” Browning said. “We will not be looking at a capital expense like a vehicle or some other kind of equipment that might be used in the police enforcement that would include drug control.”

The department is also looking to add two new line items to their budget, however; Street told the board that Jonesborough is looking to a different policing tool to add to their tool belt that he believes could create a safer environment for patrons and police staff.

“Tasers are the new instrument in law enforcement and you’ll find doing your research that they can reduce the amount of injuries to the officers and to the public we arrest by 60 percent,” Street said. “It’s just another tool for the officers that sometimes keeps them from getting hurt and sometimes keeps them from hurting an individual out there.”

The tasers would cost $14,400, but Street said a the cost should be offset by a recent employee retirement.

Street also said the department has 18 outdated sets of body armor and is asking for $8,000 to coincide with a possible grant that could cover 50 percent of the cost.

“Traditionally what’s happened is the reserves force, which is very instrumental and very helpful to us, has always got hand-me-downs,” Street said. “They’re using the bulletproof vests now that are by far way out of date. Our plans are to update that.”

Community questions Gray School teaching changes for next year

Gray School parent and Bristol Motor Speedway Vice President Ben Trout addressed the board along with Gray School athletes in opposition of the transfer of the school’s teacher and coach, Jennifer Taylor.


Staff Writer

Two Washington County teachers have received notice that their positions will change at the start of next year’s school year, but during the Washington County Board of Education’s June 1 meeting, the board received notice of the community’s outrage over one teacher’s non-renewal and another’s transfer within the school system.

Before parents and students alike took to the podium to address the board, Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley prefaced the community’s concerns with clarification as to who is able to make any further decisions regarding the contract renewal of Gray Elementary School’s music and drama teacher, Stacia Howard, and the transfer of Gray Elementary School’s physical education teacher and coach, Jennifer Taylor.

“With regards to placement, non-renewals and transfer of teachers and administrators, that is in sole discretion of the director. So this board does not have authority to make decisions regarding transfers and non-renewals,” Seeley said. “I just want to make that clear to the board. I think there may be a little bit of confusion—the public may have a misconception based on the situation we had with the tenured teacher. That’s a statutory process that comes before this board where the board does have that authority.

“But with non-renewals and transfers, again, that lies solely within the discretion of the director.”

Howard, who received a letter stating that her contract would not be renewed on the last day of the school year—the last day of her fifth and tenure year—told the board and Director of School Kimber Halliburton she was perplexed by the non-renewal decision. After saying that her evaluation scores were excellent and that she had never been reprimanded during her 19-year teaching career, Howard asked the board for answers.

Stacia Howard addressed the board regarding her contract non-renewal after receiving notice of the change on the last day of this school year.

“The evidence would suggest that my non-renewal couldn’t be based on my evaluations and teacher effect scores. Likewise, I don’t see a substantial cost savings as a plausible reason due to the fact that I will have to be replaced. Therefore I am at a loss to understand the reasoning behind this decision,” Howard said. “I do realize that even though this occurred on the last day of my fifth and tenure year, there is no requirement that I be given a reason. Regardless of this fact, I feel that the board should want and be giving a reason for this seemingly illogical action. I request that Mrs. Halliburton and the board weigh the reasons against the five-year evidence of my performance record and please re-evaluate this decision.”

Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-301 says the director of schools has the duty to authorize each principal to make staffing decisions regarding administrative personnel for the principal’s school. The code also states that the director can employ, transfer, suspend, non-renew and dismiss all personnel, licensed or otherwise (apart from teachers who received tenure from the BOE) within the approved budget and existing state laws and board policies.

Coach Taylor also falls under this category in light of her appointed transfer within the school system. In addition to being a physical education teacher, Taylor is also the basketball and soccer coach at Gray School. During the meeting, Bristol Motor Speedway Vice President Ben Trout also addressed the board in question of Taylor’s transfer.

“For 12 years, Coach Jennifer Taylor has poured her heart and soul into making our kids better. She teaches, she coaches, she participates and she does it with a passion,” Trout said. “And yet, she’s being removed for nothing better, from what I can understand, is that ‘we’re going in a different direction’—that’s all that was told. What’s your different direction? At Bristol Motor Speedway, when we make a change, we have a plan. So what is the plan?”

Howard and Trout both also mentioned the board’s recent budget decisions in regard to the non-renewal and transfer; during the BOE’s meeting with the commission’s budget committee on Friday May 26, Halliburton said 10 teaching positions and 14 instructional aides would be cut from the budget for the 2018 fiscal year. The adjusted budget came after numerous discussions about the county’s slipping student enrollment numbers (that resulted in a $560,000 basic education program funding loss) and a request from Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge for the BOE to balance the budget.

“We applaud your efforts in trying to get a balanced budget for the 2018 fiscal year. But at some point in time, as we’ve all learned, you’re got to reach the point to where you look at quality versus the bottom line. Where do you draw that line? What’s the cost versus the quality of taking somebody that has influenced so many individuals over a period of 12 years and say, ‘You’re being moved.’?”

The BOE will hold a called meeting to discuss the Boones Creek School plans and the board’s budget on Thursday June 8 at 6 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Washington County Department of Education central office at 405 W College St., Jonesborough.

Committee moves ahead with new county firefighters


Staff Writer

The Washington County Commission Safety Committee’s plan to add part-time firefighting positions has again sparked a fiery conversation. And now the discussion— that commissioner and public safety committee member Mike Ford said has been kicked around for over 20 years— has resulted in a plan that was approved by the committee during their Thursday, June 1, meeting to be sent on to the county’s budget committee.

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said the plan as of now is to add volunteer firefighters who will receive stipends for their shift work with each of the county’s fire departments. The plan would cost around $500,000 for the county.

“I just know this has been going on for 20 years at least and this is the farthest down the road we’ve been. I’ve not been a commissioner all that many years but it’s been an ongoing problem,” Ford said. “I don’t know where it’s going to begin or where it’s going to end or anything else in between, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Earlier this year, the committee discussed adding two full-time employees to each fire department. During the committee’s called meeting and regularly scheduled meeting last week, the committee also considered using 1099 workers, or contracted workers who receive 1099 forms rather than W-2 tax forms. However, the county’s plan to add these workers may hit some financial road blocks; the commission is currently finalizing its budget for the 2018 fiscal year and Eldridge said it’s been somewhat of a struggle for the county this year.

“We are having a lot of trouble getting a half a million dollars for this program through the budget,” Eldridge said. “You’ve all heard me, I don’t know how many times, talk about the challenges that are really starting to pile up on us as a result of growth in the tax space. That’s making it really, really difficult.

“I cannot think of anything that we could do in Washington County right now that would benefit the residents of this county more than to implement this program—I can’t tell you today though that it’s a sure thing with this budget,” Eldridge said.

Apart from financial woes, one community member during the June 1 meeting had geographical concerns; Watauga Volunteer Fire Department Secretary Delisa LaFleur said Watagua VFD has been excluded from the plan and that the fire station that sets less than a mile into neighboring Carter County serves a corner of the county that otherwise might have less fire services.

“How do you as mayor and y’all as commissioners tell Kennametal that their tax money is not going to provide them the same fire services that you’re providing the rest of the county,” LaFleur said. “Simply because our station sits one half of a mile inside Carter County?”

Watauga VFD covers about nine square miles of Washington County and serves the Barnes, Watauga Flats, Hilltop and Cash Hollow communities. Eldridge, however, was concerned about logistics of adding work-shift volunteers to the station that also serves a neighboring county.

“It has nothing to do with where your station is,” Eldridge said. “It has everything to do with us figuring out how we’re going to manage a process where your volunteers—who are Watauga Volunteer Fire Department volunteers paid with Washington County tax payer dollars—are going to be designated for Washington County fires only. What happens when your department gets paged out and the only ones in the station are the paid volunteers who are paid by Washington County tax dollars?”

The commissioners agreed that their goal at the moment is to gain traction and to “get something started” in order to get some sort of plan in action.

“This is I think the best idea we’ve ever had,” Eldridge said. “It’s the most practical way to do it. It’s the least expensive way to do it that’s ever been developed to accomplish what we want to accomplish. One way or another, I really want us to figure out how to get this done.”

The county’s next budget meeting will be held on Wednesday June 7 at 9 a.m. at the Historic Courthouse at 100 E Main St., Jonesborough.

Commission approves next step in Washington Way plan


Staff Writer

“Caroline I thought had a good comment,” Commissioner and Finance Director Mitch Meredith said at the Washington County Commission meeting on Monday, May 22 referring to one of the multiple 4-H essay contest winners who read their pieces to the commission. “She was talking about setting a plan in place, and over a period of time, you will start to see results. Well, this commission started two years ago putting a plan in place. In a few years, we will see some results in the Washington Way. That is what we’re here for; trying to, instead of just sitting around and talking about it, we’re finally going to move forward and do something.”

The commission voted to approve six resolutions regarding capital to be used for Washington County Schools. From school buses to funding for facility projects as part of the Washington Way, the resolutions circled around bonds and interest rates to fund projects such as the Boones Creek School project (projected at approximately $26.8 million) and the Jonesborough School and academic magnet projects (projected at approximately $20.8 million).

“You all have done the hard work. You’ve developed a funding plan and a strategy to make this happen,” Meredith said. “What we’re doing now is starting to dot ‘i’s’ and cross ‘t’s.’ We’re going to our banker and saying, ‘Hey, we’re ready to go forward. We’re going to need some dollars.’ ”

The agenda items came with concerns, however; Commissioner Phil Carriger also considered Johnson City, who will be shouldering an approximately $30-million shared debt with the county for the Boones Creek School and Jonesborough School projects.

“This weekend I’ve received a number of phone calls, people on the street bumping into me and emails concerning school funding. There are a number of county tax payers that are concerned about the equity between the city and the county,” Carriger said. “I bring that up because one of the worst things is for us to have a squabble that ruins our reputation for recruiting business, ruins our reputation for education.

“I’m going to vote for these resolutions because I believe strongly in education. But I think we need to be aware of the fact that there are some people that have voiced their concerns.”

During the May 22 meeting, Commissioner Robbie Tester also asked if any commissioners there thought that the 20-year debt-payback plan was a good idea, considering the commission’s bonds from 2007 and that the first three years of three of the resolutions’ plans include interest-only payments.

Meredith said there are requirements such as the county’s debt policy which requires a certain amount of principle to be repaid that will keep the commission from financial trouble.

At the Washington County Board of Education’s most recent meeting on May 18, Washington County Board of Education Chariman Jack Leonard said each school member received an email stating that the land has been officially purchased and the deeds have been recorded for the county’s school project. The Boones Creek School will break ground in July so long as the commission authorizes construction funding at their June meeting. A following project update will be discussed at an upcoming BOE meeting, for which the date is yet to be determined.

Declining enrollment takes toll on BOE budget

Washington County Finance Director Brad Hale talks declining student enrollment with the Washington County Board of Education.


Staff Writer

The Washington County Board of Education was tasked with a challenge from the Washington County Commission Budget Committee during their last meet up; balance the budget and do so to where the amount of fund balance reserve dollars used from year to year is minimized as much as possible.

Finance Director Brad Hale came before the school board during the Thursday, May 18, called meeting in order to decrease the roughly $3 million out-of-balance budget figure. Hale explained that the fund balance reserves should contain about $5 million but $2 million of that amount is required to remain untouched.

“If we really have to pull that much out of there, that’s going to put us down to about $3 million in that fund balance,” Hale said. “We only have $1 million cushion from our minimum. So come next year, we can’t do the same thing because it won’t be there. So that’s some of the resistance we ran into.”

Hale also said the goal is to, throughout the next few years, get the budget balanced to where the reserve dollars are not used. However, BOE chairman Jack Leonard referenced the board’s budget history when it comes to the fund balance.

“I’ve been on the board for seven years and we’ve always dipped into (the reserve fund),” Chairman Jack Leonard said. “I know others have been here longer than me and we’ve always had to go into it to balance it. That’s what worries me about trying to build it back up.”

Refraining from using the fund balance wasn’t the board’s only obstacle; Hale told the board that since 2011, the Washington County School District has gone from roughly 9,100 students to 8,400 students at the end of this year’s school year. This continued decline resulted in a 155-student enrollment loss for the county in the last year. It also left the school system with $560,000 less in state Basic Education Program funding.

At the county commission’s last budget meeting on April 27, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge addressed the decrease in student enrollment and how it could effect the school district’s budget.

“If our enrollment has shrunk by 10 percent, I guess my question would be have we seen a decrease in overall staff?,” Eldridge said. “I don’t know, but my thinking is maybe it’s time we start considering how we staff these schools recognizing, again next year, we’re gonna be back here with the exact same problem. We’re going to have our costs escalating at a much higher rate than our revenue’s growing. And our enrollment is going to decline again. We’re digging a whole here we’re never going to get out of.”

Because of the declining student population, Hale said the school district will absorb as many positions left by school system employee retirements, resignations and non-renewals as possible. However, some of those roles will have to be refilled, Hale said.

As for instructional aides, the board previously discussed cutting back on the number of IAs in the school district, but Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said no additional IAs will be removed other than those each school’s principal chooses to cut.

When it came to raises within the school district, the BOE still opted for raises for all employees including support staff after school board member Clarence Mabe made a motion to include a two-percent raise for all employees in the budget. Other than board member Mary Beth Dellinger, all school board members voted in favor of the motion.

Halliburton also expressed her thoughts on raises within the school district and any future decisions on the topic.

“I would like to give everybody a raise, I really would. You know, it’s conflicting for me as much as it is you all,” Halliburton said. “I’m just wanting to be more competitive with our teacher raises and our assistant principal and principal raises.

“I’ve got three years left and during my tenure, I want to see something done toward teacher salaries. And I think we are going to eventually have to do something that might not feel good to another group in order to do it because we have declining enrollment and a limited budget. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions in order to be able to offer teachers a raise.”

After making the motion for two-percent raises for all employees, Mabe said he’d also like to look ahead in regards to raises for Washington County teachers.

“I’d like to see us do a study and have a plan and in five years be in a certain way with our teacher salaries,” Mabe said. “And we may have to do that and say our regular employees can’t go along with us on that. To be competitive with Sullivan County and Johnson City, we’ve gotta step it up.”

The Tennessee Education Association’s report for teacher salary schedule average salary ranking for 2015 to 2016 ranks Washington County behind six other Northeast Tennessee school districts (Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Rogersville, Greenville and Sullivan County) and above the remaining seven (Greene County, Hawkins County, Elizabethton, Unicoi County, Carter County, Hancock County and Johnson County).

Though teacher salary schedules have been the topic of conversation at multiple BOE budget meetings, Philip McLain also mentioned that preparing for the costs of any career and technical education facility planning will be an additional expense for future budgets. Halliburton said the board has not yet voted to approve any CTE plans just yet, therefore figures for that project are yet to be determined.

The academic magnet school—which is slated to take residence in the Jonesborough Middle School building once the new Jonesborough K-8 school is built—is another upcoming budget item the board discussed during the meeting. The Jonesborough School and the academic magnet school are projected to cost around $20.8 million. Halliburton said the project will undoubtedly be costly, but she also believes it could aid the county in declining student enrollment numbers, among other obstacles.

“I just think you have to offer a variety of different approaches to attract different parents like we talked about before. Until we get our enrollment back up—and I think these specialized programs will do that—it’s big picture, the decisions we make,” Halliburton said. “They’re critical to attracting parents and boosting our enrollment so that we can do something about teacher salaries. All of that goes hand-in-hand. If we continue to loose students, we can’t do anything about teacher salaries in the short-run. So we’ve got to work on that.”

The commission’s budget committee will discuss the school board’s budget at their meeting on Friday, May 26 at 9 a.m. at the conference room on the first floor of the Historic Courthouse in Jonesborough.

BOE dreams dashed at budget meeting


Staff Writer

After two Washington County Board of Education budget meetings, Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton—along with interim finance director Jerry Whitaker and incoming finance director Brad Hale—sat at the conference table across from the Washington County Commission Budget Committee in hopes of getting closer to finalizing the school board’s budget. But the budget discussion looks to be far from over as the budget committee voted to send the budget back to Halliburton and the nine-member school board.

“We had a big, lofty dream” Halliburton said at the April 27 meeting just before she presented the board’s budget that is $1.4 million out of balance. “And we realize that this commission has been so good to us already. We wanted to show our support so we tried to make cuts before the cuts. The board and I, along with help from our finance directors, made several cuts before this.”

The budget includes the addition of four academic coaches, a driver’s education instructor at Daniel Boone High School, a special projects manager (with an emphasis on grant writing), ASPIRE testing to aid students prior to ACT testing, two web-based education programs for school and at-home use, literacy levels readers, a continuance of professional development with Rutherford Learning Group and graduation funds for both high schools.

The budget also includes four maintenance of effort items (or items that are must-haves due to year-to-year funding requirements). Those items are two special education teachers, one SPED instructional aide, one part-time English Second Language instructor and a five-percent increase in electrical services.

In trying to come up with a way to balance the budget, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge weighed the upcoming facilities projects.

“I’ve got a question for the board; that $8 million athletic complex at Boones Creek appears to me to be a deal killer the way I’ve heard it,” Eldridge said. “If that complex is not part of the deal, then you don’t want that facility. You don’t want that school.

“I guess my question is, in the order of priorities, what’s more important? Balancing this budget or building an $8 million athletic complex? Because that money can help offset. It won’t make this deficit go away, but it can help offset this deficit. And I’d really like to hear from the board of education what your thoughts are in that regard.”

Eldridge said the pennies that fund those capital dollars for the athletic complex could also be pennies that fund operation expenditures. Halliburton said the school board could discuss that at their upcoming May 4 meeting.

Meanwhile, BOE chairman Jack Leonard said the board members were the under the impression that the athletic complex was going to be built at the same time as the Boones Creek school.

“I felt like I was threatened right then, mister mayor when you said, ‘Do you want to want your athletics or do you want to balance the budget?’ And that really upsets me because I extended my hand to you in cooperation and I have worked with you and worked with you,” Leonard said. “For this to come forward like that, that’s not fair.”

Commissioner and budget committee chairman Joe Grandy said he would like to find a way to implement the board’s budget items but that there will be no new revenue to do so.

“Mrs. Halliburton is showing you what our needs are and what she feels like will move our system forward,” Leonard said. “And we asked her to do that because we want to move our system forward. That’s what you’ve been wanting. And that’s what I’ve been wanting. That’s why I wanted to choose Mrs. Halliburton, because I thought she had new ideas to move us forward. And so she has brought those to you and we were support of that.

“You are our funding body. You have to tell us exactly what we have to do to be able to meet our needs.”

In addition to weighing facility priorities, Eldridge also considered the declining number of Washington County students a factor in the budget discussion.

“In Washington County, for a long time, we’ve made bricks and mortar the priority. I think those days are over,” Eldridge said. “There is not enough money to do both. And we’re looking at growth in revenue that doesn’t come close to offsetting the expenditures in any year. And quite frankly, from what I’m seeing, it never will again. And as long as we’ve got a school system that is shrinking in enrollment, we need to start to understand how we’re going to spend less and the actual budget begin to decrease as a result to the declining enrollment.”

Whitaker said at the board’s previous budget meeting that the county school system lost 155 students last year that resulted in a loss of $560,000 in state basic education program funding.

“We can’t sustain classrooms with 12 kids in them any longer. And I understand that,” Halliburton said when asked how the decline in students has affected the school system’s staff headcount. “Our plan is to max out our class numbers, given the dire situation of enrollment numbers.”

Halliburton said that plan is not reflected in the costs in the budget. She also said the decision to cut instructional aides has not yet been made.

The budget committee voted to send the budget back to the school board. The board’s next meeting will be on Thursday, May 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington County Department of Education’s central office at 405 W College St. in Jonesborough.

Commissioners consider funding aerospace park


Staff Writer

Washington County could be part of an agreement—along with Sullivan County, Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol—to fund an aerospace park in the Tri-Cities.

The Washington County Commission’s Commerce Industry and Agriculture committee examined and discussed a draft agreement with the Tri-Cities Airport Authority to join the four other surrounding government bodies in consideration of developing an aerospace park on 160 acres in Sullivan County.

“If we string out five, six, seven years getting that thing (the land) flat out there, we’ve missed the opportunity (to add aerospace clients),” CIA chairman Todd Hensley said at the May 4 meeting. “If we don’t get that moving out there—I’m just going to say two years in my opinion or less—we’re gonna miss the gains that we could create.”

In the draft, the project cost is set at $18 million. It also states the Authority will issue its revenue bonds and that each of the five bodies would guarantee the repayment of its proportional or “pro rata” share. The draft calls for a $4,050,000 financial commitment from Washington County. Sullivan County’s would be $4,851,000, Kingsport’s would be $3,366,000, Bristol’s would be $1,683 and Johnson City’s would be equal to Washington County’s amount.

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said in addition to the possible revenue from the park, these new jobs could also be a benefit for the county.

“Virtually every aerospace job is accretive to our median per capita incomes. That’s one of the real benefits of this aerospace park potential,”Eldridge said. “Yes, it’s going to be an opportunity to create jobs, but more importantly, good paying jobs that are going to increase our median per capita incomes.”

Hensley said this park could also bring maintenance repair build out organizations ready to join the site.

“It just isn’t job creation. Those businesses that will locate there drive your air traffic numbers up. We’re on the cusp of getting service to Houston and Chicago. We have a couple of MROs (maintenance repair build out organizations) there that have regular business,” Hensley said. “Air traffic numbers and routes are so micro-managed by those companies, that just a few seats here or there can make them say, “Huh. Okay. That aircraft’s now going to Tri-Cities.’

It could just snowball. It could help a lot of things we don’t even realize.”

Though the commissioners could see the opportunities from the potential agreement, Eldridge also said if the county fully invests, the pro rata share of that commitment needs to be remitted back to Washington County.

Though the document presented at the meeting was only a draft and the committee agreed to discuss the topic again at the next CIA meeting before the draft sees the full commission, the opportunities the draft presented seemed attractive to most in attendance of the meeting.

“Hopefully all five will agree to participate in the program and it will provide East Tennessee with one of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever had to invite business industry and manufacturing into the Tri-Cities area on a scale equal to this,” Commissioner Lynn Hodge said. “And there’s no other opportunity like this available. Now, it will call for some commitment and long-term commitment. And I think we’re moving in the right direction. You can’t market something that you don’t have.

“If you’re thinking that this is an opportunity for Washington County, Sullivan County and the entities therein, then this is the opportune time to do it.”

Community’s voices protest reinstatement


Staff Writer

The decision to reinstate the Gray Elementary School teacher who was dismissed for insubordination and unprofessional conduct following complaints about physical contact with students was somewhat of the shot heard around Washington County. But during The Washington County Board of Education’s May 4 meeting, it seemed the community’s voice was heard above all else.

Seven community members came to the jam-packed conference room to voice their opinions on the board’s decision to reinstate Jennifer Collins who (in a slim 5-4 vote during the school board’s April 6 meeting) was voted by the nine-member board to be reinstated for the 2017 to 2018 school year without any further penalties. Parents, concerned county citizens, veterans, and teachers were the ones standing at the podium before the school board and the director of schools this time. But it was the voice of one particular community member who—after revealing herself as the mother of one of the children involved in the case—rendered the longest applause of the night from the crowd.

“By this time, I’m sure that each board member is familiar with me if not personally, then by my initials ‘RW’,” mother and Gray Elementary School teacher Rebecca Weems said. “I am a teacher at Gray Elementary but more importantly, I’m a mother to my son.”

After saying her only involvement with the case was as a mother, Weems spoke on the board’s decision and how she felt they reacted to her son’s discomfort.

“While I’m glad some board members have had positive experiences with Mrs. Collins, both as teachers of your children and as a coworker, these personal interactions should have never been brought to light because not only does it raise questions about your ability and willingness to be impartial, you’re also negating the experience my son had.

“You have negated his words. You have negated his tears. You have negated his feelings. You have negated him.”

Three other Washington County mothers, Kara Battel, Beth Fletcher and Jennifer Lauren, also addressed the board with their concerns.

“The board code of ethics states in Article I Section I, ‘I will at all times think in terms of children first, always determining other important things according to how they effect the child, his education and his training.’ As a mother, I try to teach your students, my kids, to be honest, keep your hands to yourself, treat others with respect and treat yourself with respect,” Battel said. “When something doesn’t seem right, a little off-kilter, tell someone. And if you ever hurt someone physically or emotionally, say you’re sorry.”

“I ask each of you, do you feel your decision is in alignment with the code of ethics?”

During the meeting, board member Todd Ganger asked Washington County attorney Tom Seeley if the board could take another vote on the reinstatement of Collins. Seeley said a board member on the prevailing side of the motion—Mary Beth Dellinger, David Hammond, Keith Ervin, Annette Buchanan or Philip McLain who voted to reinstate the teacher—would have to bring the issue back to the board. Only one of those board members discussed the decision during the meeting.

“I voiced my opinion. I vote the way I feel like I needed to vote,” Ervin said. “And it probably don’t agree with most people out here tonight, but I’ve not changed my way in 12 years. So I’m going to vote the way I feel like I need to vote.”

Collins was dismissed in November 2016 on the grounds of unprofessional conduct and insubordination after reportedly receiving multiple warnings from her principal. Collin’s insubordination was also a component of the case community members discussed at the school board meeting.

“No one disputes the insubordination,” Lauren said. “They dispute the severity of her physical contact with students. However, her insubordination shows that she is unwilling to be instructed, led or to develop professionally. She is so unwilling to take guidance that she would put her entire school, staff and profession in a poor light. Not malicious, just unwise.”

Tennessee Code Annotated 49-5-512 lists the dismissal, suspension, hearing and appeals process for a tenured teacher and states that any party dissatisfied with the decision rendered by the board shall have the right to appeal to the chancery court within 30 days after receipt of the dated notice of the board’s decision.

During the April 6 meeting when the board voted to reinstate Collins, Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton recommended that the board uphold the 5-4 vote the board made in November to terminate the teacher.

“This decision tells me that adults come first. It is our charge in this community to create, preserve and protect safe environment conducive to learning,” Halliburton said at the April meeting. “I’m concerned that students will be reluctant to come to their principal to report a teacher is mistreating them or violating them. This is a very difficult thing for me to say.”

Halliburton had no comments during Thursday night’s roundtable discussion. The Herald & Tribune also reached out to Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton through phone call and email but was unable to reach her for comment.

Seeley also said that according to the Tennessee Code procedure, Halliburton has done everything within her power to address the issue.

“There’s no real legal precedent for the director to appeal the board decision,” Seeley told the Herald & Tribune. “And so the question that’s never really been decided in Tennessee is ‘does the director have the right to appeal the board?’. Usually you’d have to go to get board approval to file suit. And so most likely, this matter would have to be brought back before the board and the board would have to authorize Mrs. Halliburton to appeal their decision—which, based on what has happened, is probably unlikely.”

Seeley said Collins has received notice of the board’s decision of reinstatement. The board has 30 days to appeal the decision.

BOE opts for raises in new budget

By MARINA WATERSwashingtonCoSeal

Staff Writer

“It comes down to the fact of do you have money to spend or not,” Washington County Board of Education member Phillip McLain said during the school board’s second budget meeting on April 18 at the central office. “When you go to the grocery store, do you buy the steaks or the hamburger? That’s what it amounts to.”

Later, the board unanimously voted for a 2-percent raise for all Washington County School employees, leaving the budget out of balance by $1,449,440.

“My hope is eventually while I’m here, to give teachers raises,” Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said at the previous school board budget meeting on April 13. “I just hope we can do it. But we’re going to have to look at what we can cut, given the picture that the mayor is painting for all of us. And I don’t even know if we can do it when we cut. But that’s my hope and that’s my dream to do that.”

At the April 13 meeting, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge reminded the board of the budget funding parameters after last year’s 40-cent tax increase in part for the school district’s new school projects.

“We have no new revenue. We’re really in a situation where we’re going to be for the next several years.” Eldridge said to the board. “Folks, this is a tough situation. I think you know county commission is not going to raise taxes. I don’t think we even have to elaborate on that. Every department across the county is facing these exact same circumstances.”

The district is also facing a loss of $560,000 in state basic education program funding due to a 155-decline in student enrollment.

“This (losing 155 students) is huge for our system,” Interim Finance Director Jerry Whitaker said. “If we maintained or kept those 155 students in our system, we could come away with $560,000 more dollars. So everything counts as far as the students go. Students are counted even for square footage and custodial. They’re counted for substitutes. All that counts.”

Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said the school-age population is shrinking in Washington County and there are few people within the child-bearing age group moving into the region adding to the school district. The district did however add 203 special education students this year.

Though raises could be on the horizon in Washington County, cutbacks on instructional assistants were also part of the discussion at both budget meetings this month.

Halliburton said that Washington County has an overage of IAs and the Tennessee Education Association’s education support professionals report states that the Washington County School District had 214 classroom aides for the 2015 to 2016 school year, the second highest total for IAs in the Northeast Tennessee region behind the Sullivan County School District with 232 classroom aides. Johnson City had 88, Kingsport had 80, Greene County had 113 and Carter County had 140. TEA is still compiling the results from their annual survey for this year’s totals.

“So what I’m saying is, if we continue to keep that many instructional assistants, I don’t know that we will ever really be able to give our teachers a significant raise,” Halliburton said. “And I want us to be competitive. I want teachers to want to stay with us, quite frankly. And I want to attract quality assistant principals and principals.”

TEA’s teacher salary schedule average ranking report for the 2015-2016 school year lands the Washington County School District at the seventh spot out of the 14 school districts in Northeast Tennessee and 64th out of the 145 state school districts with an average salary of $47,587.89. Washington County is no. 2 in Northeast Tennessee county school systems behind Sullivan County in the same report.

While board member Todd Ganger said the added technology in the district could help keep students engaged and could therefore lead to less of a need for classroom aides, board member Mary Beth Dellinger questioned if reducing the number of IAs would cause problems for the function of each school.

“So what I’m saying is, if we continue to keep that many instructional assistants, I don’t know that we will ever really be able to give our teachers a significant raise,” Halliburton said. “And I want us to be competitive. I want teachers to want to stay with us, quite frankly. And I want to attract quality assistant principals and principals.”

“For what we’re paying these instructional assistants, the job they do is phenomenal in our schools. They do RTIs (response to intervention), they work one-on-one with the students. I can’t even imagine what a lunchroom is going to be like without someone monitoring food allergies, diabetes, things like that. I don’t know. I want a plan in place for what to do.”

The average salary for classroom aides in Washington County is the second highest of the 14 school districts in Northeast Tennessee according to TEA’s educational support professional report of classroom aides for the 2015 to 2016 school year. Johnson City School District’s average is at $15.06 and Washington County’s is at $13.31.

“No one is arguing the fine job instructional aides do in our schools,” Halliburton said. “I’m saying that our ratio is much lower. I mean, we have an abundance of them (aides). To answer your question on who will do cafeteria duty, instructional assistants will still do that. What we’re talking about is reducing an amount. We’re not saying we’re going to leave schools in dire straights.

At the previous budget meeting, Halliburton also said other changes could happen in terms of what an IA does in Washington County on a daily basis.

“We’re going to redefine the role of an instructional assistant. We really want them to be focused on the instruction. There are a lot of tasks I think they’re doing that could be more streamlined,” Halliburton said. “And this way we can guarantee to give raises because of our current budget situation. I mean, we might be forced to do this kind of thing anyway, given the dire straights of our sales tax and our declining enrollment.”

“In no way do I disvalue any of the work people do in our schools. It’s just the budget makes us all have to face some realities.”

The budget proposal will see the county commission’s budget committee on Thursday, April 27 at 3 p.m. in the conference room on the first floor of the Historic Courthouse in Jonesborough.

Firefighter continues to inspire good work

XLuke Story in 107

Luke Story


Staff Writer

Jonesborough firefighter Luke Story inspired many, dedicating his life to helping others.

To continue this legacy, the annual Luke Story Memorial Blood Drive will be back again on Monday, April 24, at the Jonesborough Visitor’s Center to continue to spread the idea of helping the community—a mission that both Story’s life and one of the blood drive coordinators, the Jonesborough Community Chest, both share.

“We felt that Luke Story was a dedicated public servant, he cared about his community and really embraced a lot of the values that the community chest wants to convey,” Community Chest President Adam Dickson said. “So we thought it was very fitting to put together a blood drive that would not only honor his memory, but would also promote the values of again giving back to the community, coming together as a community and trying to do something that promotes the greater good.”

Story was a Jonesborough native and committed member of the Jonesborough Fire Department and Washington County Emergency Services. He was also heavily involved with the community through his work with projects such as the Christmas event, Shop With A Cop, and the Prom Promise he enacted with David Crockett High School and later Daniel Boone High School and for which he won an award for his service. In 2015, he faced from which he died at age 37.

“Luke was just an exceptional young man. Luke is one of those individuals who sincerely had a servant’s heart,” Public Safety director Craig Ford said. “He was constantly, not only serving his community as a firefighter, but looking for some things to do to make his community a better place.”

XLuke's mom, Jayne StoryThe Luke Story Foundation for patients and families dealing with pancreatic cancer was created in his honor and now the “Story Strong” blood drive, as it is also called, is dedicated to raising funds for the foundation and also collecting blood donations at the event through the non-profit regional blood center, Blood Assurance.

“Our goals are very small. We’re hoping to have 30 people come and donate and we want to try to raise $500 to give to the pancreatic cancer foundation. So it’s not out of the way,” Dickson said. “If we have to undergo an operation, then we need blood. If we’re in a car accident, we need blood. So it’s a very simple task, but it’s a very universal task. It’s something everybody can do and it’s a really great service project.”

While the event was created to raise money and blood donations while honoring Story, Dickson is also hoping the event will support the belief of helping one’s neighbor in such a community as Tennessee’s oldest town.

“In an area like Northeast Tennessee, we’re still shielded from the rest of the country, but a lot of the country has gotten away from the idea of just simply loving their neighbor and showing concern for their neighbor,” Dickson said. “So the concept is still alive here locally, but in many cases, neighborhoods have changed over the course of say 20, 30 years. Because we’re now so busy, the opportunity to get to know your neighbors is a little bit harder now. By donating and spending time, hopefully we get to know each other and build that sense of community.”

That community spirit isn’t something that just popped up with the springtime daisies one April afternoon in Jonesborough, according to Dickson. He considers the sense of community found at events such as the Luke Story Memorial Blood Drive as something that Jonesborough honestly represents.

“The sense of community that you feel when you go into Jonesborough, that did not just happen on it’s own. It’s intentional,” Dickson explained. “We have a really great gem in Tennessee’s oldest town and it’s not based on cash, it’s not based on influence or prestige, or position. It’s based on individuals who are intentional to make it work. And that’s the reason that we’ve got to continue to do these events. That’s the reason we need to grow the Community Chest. That’s the reason we need the McKinney Arts Center and all these kinds of things because we have to be intentional in building community.”

“I’m sure you hear so many times that people feel like Jonesborough is a special place,” Ford said. “There is such a strong sense of community here. We’ve heard Main Street characterized more than once as the front porch of America. So certainly having events like this in our community, it shows that we certainly in Jonesborough are walking the walk and not just talking the talk.”

In addition to reaching the events fundraising and community goals, Ford, who knew Story well and hired him as Jonesborough’s first full-time firefighter, is also hoping to spread cancer awareness through the event.

“I feel strongly that there is a cure out there for cancer. I lost an uncle to pancreatic cancer. I lost a mother-in-law to stomach cancer. We need to constantly keep reminding people of the seriousness of cancer and we continue to remind the public of the dangers of cancer, how it effects brothers, sisters, son, daughters, mothers, daughters. It has an impact and an effect on just so many people,” Ford said. “So hopefully by us continually reminding people of those who pass away from cancer and also cancer survivors, we hope that that constant reminder continues to fuel the research efforts to find the cure.”

The inspiration to spread cancer awareness and support the community is a driving force for the event each year, but for those at the Jonesborough Fire Department like Story’s friend and fellow fireman, Chason Freeman, remembering Story is a frequent occurrence.

“I knew Sergeant Story for over 15 years. Me and him became really great friends and I had the honor of serving under his command,” Freeman said. “He’s truly missed. It’s hard not having him every day, but we know he’s in a better place and he’s not having to hurt. Humans, we don’t want to give somebody up. It’s selfish. We know he’s in a far better place than what we are, but he’s truly missed. And we look forward to seeing him one day.”

For the fire department, growing the event each year is always the hope, not only to honor Story, but to also help others just as he would have done.

“I want to see this be a big event. A lot of people think of blood and needles and that kind of turns them away. But it’s for a good cause,” Freeman said. “The life you give today may help somebody tomorrow. Whether it’s a total stranger or even a loved on. You never know.”

The Town of Jonesborough, event coordinators and the community all play a large role in the blood drive and fundraising event, but the inspiration, Luke Story, is still a force that keeps this annual event coming back each year—and the late firefighter is someone people in town, like Dickson and Ford, still think about and remember in the good work they set out to complete.

“I think he’d be pleased,” Dickson said. “Maybe he wouldn’t want his name attached to it out of modesty, but I think he’d be pleased about the fact we’re trying to get the community out for a larger purpose greater than ourselves.”

“One of the things I said at Luke’s funeral was that I was proud to be able to say that I made the recommendation to hire Luke. And that’s certainly one that I got right,” Ford said.

“He really did want to make his community a better and safer place and I think he did just that.”

Museum and fossil site seeks funding from county


Staff Writer

The Hands-On! Regional Museum executive Director Andy Marquart met with the Health Education and Welfare Committee during their April 6 meeting with a $1 million request as part of their relocation venture to the Gray Fossil Site and Museum on Exit 13.

Marquart, along with his partners from the East Tennessee State University Center of Excellence in Paleontology who make up the other half of GFSM, requested the funds to put towards the first phase of the relocation of Hands-On! from their downtown Johnson City location to Gray. Marquart said the funds would go into exhibits and structures required to facilitate these programs.

“We are going to begin a discovery center in the sense that we’re going to be STEM (science technology engineering and math) based. We are ready to roll out the learning standards for the state of Tennessee,” Marquart said. “We also want to work with Washington County Schools to make sure we are coming online as an additional resource in Washington County.”

Phase 1 of this two-part plan that is projected to be complete in 2018 is going to cost about $1.5 million. Marquart said the site and museum has raised a quarter of that cost and will be receiving another quarter-million. The director also said the museum receives funding from the state for their science initiatives from the department of education.

It was also mentioned that such a tourism site could attract revenue for the county. But Commissioner Katie Baker said if the request makes it out of the committee, “‘What will investment be from Johnson City?’ will be the next question.”

Marquart said there has not been a public conversation on Johnson City’s investment. He also said Washington County visitors make up about 60 percent of total visitors at Hands-On and that the population within a 30-mile square radius increases by 18 percent at the Gray location as compared to the downtown Johnson City site that Hands-on! has called home for over 30 years.

“It’s more than just about what we do within our four walls wherever we’re located” Marquart said in an interview with the Herald & Tribune about the site. “It’s about what we’re doing out in the community as well and how the community interprets us as an educational opportunity and so there are multiple opportunities for citizen science projects and for people to go up and observe and report back and be part of their community in a way that they never thought possible. And we hope to be a hub for that.”

The decision from the committee has been deferred to their May 4 meeting at the Historic Courthouse in Jonesborough.

Gray methadone clinic site sparks county concerns


Staff Writer

Gray resident Danny Sells sat in front of the public safety committee meeting on Thursday, April 6, to discuss his concerns about the drug addiction treatment center that is slated to open on Gray Commons Circle.

East Tennessee State University and Mountain States Health Alliance have partnered to create a treatment facility that will serve patients who are addicted to opioid-based drugs. A report from MSHA’s corporate communications manager, Meaghan Smith, said the facility will also incorporate counseling, education, outreach, prevention and research.

The Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency unanimously approved the Certificate of Need for the clinic on Aug. 24. But certain members of the Gray area are also concerned about their community.

“We have not had any concern about the fact there is a need for a treatment,” Sells said. “And there is an issue out there that we have to deal with, but we strongly feel that this is, as the experts tell us, a medical issue that needs to be addressed as a medical issue and we feel it certainly should be addressed in a medical environment. And that certainly is not in the community of Gray Station. But we’re going to have to deal with it.”

The clinic’s zoning was finalized by the Johnson City Commission on Oct. 6, 2016. During last week’s public safety committee meeting, Sells mentioned his concern about the proximity of the clinic to the nearest hospital or Johnson City Police station (which is 13 minutes to the nearest hospital and 14 minutes to the closest police station). Sells said this is part of the reason he is hoping Washington County could provide added security to the area near the clinic that is slated to open in late July or early August 2017.

“The thing that concerns us is what jeopardy does this facility put on the citizens of Gray, those of us who live there, those of us like myself who can see this facility from their front yard?” Sells said. “What we’re looking for is the county to work along with us and provide some assistance, to help us make sure this thing gets off on the right foot.”

Though the clinic will have a Johnson City address, Gray Station and Delmer Salts Road, two roads in the Washington County district, are two minutes from the site.

Commissioner Pat Wolfe also mentioned the clinic might have a security officer on site. Sells, however, expressed concern for areas farther down Suncrest Drive.

“I’ve talked to law enforcement from all over the state,” Sells said. “‘They have told me, ‘Danny you will have problems. You might not have problems immediately on the site, but you’re going to have problems at the Road Runner. You’re going to have problems down at the Dairy Queen, down at the Walgreens—that these people will hang out and create problems.”

As the clinic gears up to open its doors to patients in the coming months, Smith also said MSHA will be gathering feedback and suggestions from the surrounding community through the creation of an advisory committee that will include members from schools, law enforcement, businesses, churches and other stakeholders in the community.

Commissioner Mike Ford said he felt many others in the area will also be affected by the new facility.

“Everybody that lives from the Greene County line all the way to the Sullivan County line to the Carter County line is going to be affected by this one way or the other,” Ford said. “And that same danger is from there all the way through Gray to the interstate and outside. So we’re all going to be affected one way or the other.”

The public safety committee suggested Sells meets with Washington County law enforcement officials.

Divisive teacher appeal ends in reinstatement


Staff Writer

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house as the Washington County Board of Education addressed the appeal from Gray Elementary School teacher Jennifer Collins who was dismissed for insubordination and unprofessional conduct following complaints about physical contact with students.

But after the school board decided in a narrow 5-4 vote to allow Collins to return to the school system for the 2017-2018 school year, nearly three rows of chairs set empty as a group of principals, teachers and community members stormed from the conference room.

“She’s a 27-year veteran teacher who until recently had an impeccable record,” Collin’s representation and Tennessee Education Association attorney, John Allen, said before he cited inconsistent documentation as a factor in the case. “Discipline should be progressive and it should be corrective. The goal should be to get an employee to understand and follow the rules not to run them out the door. So documenting at the time an incident happens leads to better decision making.”

Board member Todd Ganger made a motion for the board to sustain its decision of termination of the tenured teacher who had received student and parent complaints of kissing and rubbing male students’ foreheads. The motion failed in a 5-4 vote.

However Mary Beth Dellinger made a motion that Collins be reinstated for the following school year without any further penalties. The motion passed 5-4 with David Hammond, Mary Beth Dellinger, Annette Buchanan, Phillip McLain and Keith Ervin voting for the motion. Clarence Mabe, Mike Masters, Todd Ganger and Jack Leonard voted against the motion.

Collins had the option of arguing why the decision should be modified or reversed either in person or by counsel. Tennessee Code Annotated 49-5-512 (which is the state procedure in the suspension or dismissal of a tenured teacher) also states that the school board could choose to sustain the decision of the impartial hearing officer, send the record back to add additional evidence, revise the penalty or reverse the decision.

The Washington County Director of Schools, Kimber Halliburton issued her recommendation of termination to the school board while also stating that impartial hearing officer Randy M. Kennedy made a recommendation of termination in January following the a two-day December hearing. Meanwhile, Ganger and Mabe also reminded the board that Collins did not follow a directive from her principal when she was asked to refrain from physical contact with students.

“My problem is when a person is asked to do something—especially an employee—and they don’t respond,” Mabe said. “In my place of business, if you do that, you don’t work for me.”

Hammond said children’s services and law enforcement found nothing wrong during the December hearing. Dellinger also cited the tenured teacher’s past record as a factor in her decision.

“With all the information I had already known about this case, I wanted to read the transcript with an open mind. And I read it word-for-word,” Dellinger said. “I found nothing that would warrant this teacher to lose her job. Good past record is impressive. Mrs. Collins has been suspended without pay since October. In my opinion, she’s already been punished and should be reinstated.”

Halliburton also expressed concern for the community—including students and principals—after many audience members had left the room upon the decision.

“This decision tells me that adults come first. It is our charge in this community to create, preserve and protect a safe environment conducive to learning,” Halliburton said. “I’m concerned that students will be reluctant to come to their principal to report a teacher is mistreating them or violating them. This is a very difficult thing for me to say.”

Leonard, who is also the BOE chairman, took the time after the decision to ask that the board come together and remember their mission.

“We have to work as one. If we are out there in disagreement with each other as confused board and a messed up board, we’re not helping our children at all. And that’s why we’re here,” Leonard said. “Washington County is too important. And our children are too important and this school system is too important for us not to move forward. We have to move forward because of our responsibility to our children, to our faculties, to our administrators, to our parents and to our children.”

During Halliburton’s portion of the roundtable discussion following the meeting, the director of schools recalled speaking to the board about making decisions related to agenda items such as the appeal—and how stakeholders in the community could perceive the decision.

“When I was interviewed for this job and sat right down there, one of the questions was, ‘How would you deal with ineffective employees?’ And what the members of this board specifically said is that that’s the thing they appreciate about me is that I did have the courage to deal with ineffective employees and I had the know-how to deal with that,” Halliburton said.

“The county commission is pouring money at us. Pouring money at us. And they say to us countless times that they want accountability in this school district. And you sent the county commission a clear, clear message that accountability does not exist in this county.

“And you didn’t support me.”

Water problems remain at local construction site



Staff Writer

A Jonesborough construction site at the corner of Ben Gamble Road and Highway 11E has been a topic of discussion for residents, the Town of Jonesborough and the State of Tennessee. Now the site, that is owned by Danny Bailey and currently being graded for future construction, has received a notice of violation from the town.

“Danny Bailey did get brought into municipal court on the violation. The judge informed him that he had to seed and straw the area down within a certain time period,” Town Administrator Bob Browning said. “He ended up doing that, but the building inspector sent him a letter right after that court case in which he informed him that if the grass didn’t come up, (it) doesn’t meet the conditions.

“Because of the weather, it did not satisfactorily come up and he has been issued a new notice of violation that he has to stabilize the site. So he’s been given a period of time to do that again.”

The site is home to an unnamed stream that feeds into Little Limestone Creek. The stream sets just below slopes on the site and because deposits from the erosion of the slopes have been documented by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation as having made its way into the stream, Bailey was given the notice from TDEC in December of 2016. The site was in violation of the Clean Water Act which makes it “unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.”

“Anytime you’re doing a development that’s close to a blue-line stream where there is actual water flowing, it’s a big deal and it is an issue,” Browning explained. “Twenty years ago there wasn’t nearly enough attention to soil erosion in the stream beds and stuff like that and the impact of siltation as a polluting factor in the stream. Jonesborough has a responsibility to pay attention to that.”

TDEC documents state that the property is still “out of compliance” as of the latest inspection conducted on March 21, 2017. In this report, the property failed to conduct twice-weekly inspections, stabilize slopes and all disturbed areas of the site and entrench some sections of the silt fence put in place to keep sediment from running into the nearby stream.

“While the transport of sediment is a natural function of a stream, in cases such as this where construction sites fail to properly retain sediment on site and such releases sediment-laden water, the resulting effect of siltation along the bottom of the stream can deny niche space and substrate required by benthic macro-invertebrates,” TDEC deputy communications director Kim Schofinski said. “If the siltation is serious enough, it can result in the stream partially or no longer able to support fish and aquatic life.”

Though the the Herald & Tribune was unable to reach Bailey, Browning said the property owner has been working to improve the issues with the site. Schofinski also confirmed that some improvements such as new erosion-control matting have been put in place.

“Danny Bailey is currently working on it and our goal is to get it stabilized. So as long as he is making progress in that area, then it’s not so much to get him in court as it is to get it stabilized,” Browning said. “So if he’s working on it, then we’re going to keep monitoring it, but allow enough flexibility to get it done in a reasonable time period, in a reasonable manner. And obviously weather impacts it.”

Rain has been a factor for the site. Though Browning said the weather has greatly improved since the issues Bailey faced during the winter, a large amount of rainfall could affect the site’s sediment deposit.

“Some places are still not entrenched properly,” Schofinski said. “During rain events, fences allow sediment-laden water to pass underneath and into the stream in those places that are not entrenched properly.”

Though the on-site logistics are at the forefront for the property, the future of the site is still slightly undetermined.

Browning said a plan to put a gas station on the site was discussed at a previous Jonesborough Regional Planning Commission meeting, but that it served as a reference point for what could be implemented on the site. Browning said there has not been a site plan including details on the building and parking areas that has been presented to the town through the planning commission.

Browning also explained that the property was zoned as a B6 (which serves as a business zoning) before The Meadows Subdivision was developed. He also said that the B6 zoning requires a “buffer zone” such as a line of trees between any potential business and residential areas.

As for the town, Browning said a safer option for motorists coming from New Hope Road—the next road past the construction site—might be something the town would look into. Because a left turn is unavailable from the road currently, the new business could provide a safer alternative.

“What we would like to see is a connection between New Hope Road connected to that development,” Browning said, “to where people who are driving on New Hope Road can come in and be able to access that signal in order to have a safe turn.”

Any plans for the site will be presented at future Jonesborough Regional Planning Commission meetings.

Commission votes against IMPROVE Act


Staff Writer

A resolution to increase gasoline and diesel taxes and to cut down the food tax failed at the Washington County Commission’s March 27 meeting in a 15 to 10 vote.

The IMPROVE act—which stands for Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy—is supported by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. The commission’s vote on the act is non-binding as the state is yet to hold a final vote on the bill that was created in interest of adding funds to Tennessee’s highways.

The resolution originally stated the gas tax would increase by 7 cents and diesel fuel by 12.  The state’s website also says the IMPROVE Act cuts the sales tax on groceries another .50 percent ($55 million) to 4.5 percent and would bring in $278 million in new dollars to fund 962 transportation projects across all 95 counties.

The state’s website includes other tax cuts too; it says the IMPROVE Act cuts business taxes for manufacturers as well as the Hall income tax (a tax on personal income). The act also places an annual $100 fee on electric vehicles and increases charges on vehicles using alternative fuels.

Commissioner Lee Chase proposed an amendment that included removing the figures from the resolution to allow possible changes in these tax numbers; the act has already switched to a 6-cent increase on gas tax and a 10-cent increase on diesel fuel tax.

“I think it is our obligation to support the highway system that this state and county is responsible for,” Chase said. “Obviously the resolution is not binding. I think most of you are perhaps aware that they (Tennessee Representatives) have publicly stated their position.”

The act has passed through the House’s Local Government Committee and must pass through two finance committees before seeing the full house for a final vote. For this reason, Commissioner Gary McAllister questioned if voting on the act was part of the the commission’s role.

“We’ve sent resolutions up to the state. We sat here for hours one night and debated whether or not we should send it to the state,” McAllister said. “I voted no then (on another resolution) because I didn’t think it was our role to do that.”

“I really don’t know if this is our role to send this forward to the state.”

Commissioner Lynn Hodge said he felt the commission’s vote could have an effect on the way in which the region’s state representatives might vote on the bill.

“If I were a representative in Nashville for this end of the state and I had an opportunity to hear from the people back home or this body or from the different county commissions throughout upper East Tennessee on an issue as hot as this one is, I think I would entertain that information,” Hodge said. “We don’t know how they’re going to vote but I think they would like to know how we stand.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Paul Stanton said he didn’t have a feel for how his constituents felt about the act while Commissioner Steve Light said he had already heard from many who were opposed to the act.

Dan Eldridge said that because the act didn’t effect Basic Education Funding, it would not have an effect on school system funding.

NET Trans dilemma receives short-term aid



When former Jonesborough Alderman Mary Gearhart suffered a stroke many years ago, she was grateful for the presence of NET Trans to aid her in getting to where she needed to go.

Recently, after shoulder surgery, she found herself once again thanking the powers that be for the service.

Earlier this month, she found out this mode of transportation — long a boon to area seniors — would no longer be provided as a free service beginning April 1.

“It really scared me,” she said of hearing the news, “And it had me so worried about so many people.”

Fortunately for those impacted by the recent announcement, help is on the way — at least for the short term.

Representative Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), Representative Micah Van Huss (R-Gray),  Representative Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport) and State Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) recently announced they had secured emergency funding to continue the NET Trans service until June 30.

“We have lots of our constituents all across Washington County that use NET Trans to go to dialysis, to go to the doctor, go get their groceries,” Hill said. “They obviously need to do those things.

“This is a stopgap measure. It’s a start and we’re working on the long term.”

The issue arose when a recent TDOT audit showed that many of the Northeast Tennessee Rural Public Transportation program services — more commonly known as NET Trans — were not considered rural, and NET Trans made its announcement it would stop providing services to such areas as Jonesborough and Telford.

NET Trans receives its funding from the Federal Transit Authority through 5311 funding, a type of funding that is only available for transportation services in rural areas.

According to Jonesborough Town Administrator Bob Browning, part of the problem is the definition of what constitutes urban and rural.

“You look at this issue of what’s rural and what’s not rural,” Browning said. “The whole city of Greenville is considered rural. And Telford and Jonesborough is considered urban.

“It’s people (in government) drawing lines. And these decisions end up impacting people here.”

It is also a problem that has the potential of becoming widespread, according to Hill and Hulsey.

“The moment the word got out, that’s when we started getting phone calls and letters from people who count on NET Trans,” said Hulsey, who represents Kingsport. “They need it to get to the doctor and places they have to go.

“TDOT is going to fund NET Trans through the end of June, until we can find a permanent solution. And we’re going have to. You can’t just dump these folks out into the world.”

Options discussed so far include transferring the responsibility to the municipal transit authority, such as Johnson City Transit, to another agency or finding additional funding.

Hill, in addition to promising to continue to work on the issue until a solution is found, also wanted to pass this message to Northeast Tennessee residents.

“They need to know their voices are being heard,” he said. “And that we’ve got a good team that are working really hard to find a long-term solution.”