By MARINA WATERS
The Washington County Commission discussed a proposal for a school facilities study, or “game plan” as Commissioner Tom Krieger has called it, to be conducted for the Washington County School system. However, the commission majority voted in opposition of the study.
Krieger, who is also the Health, Education and Welfare Committee chairman, made the motion for the commission to approve a demographic, enrollment, strategic planning and school facilities study with a cap of $60,000, which was to be paid for by the county.
Of the 22 commissioners in attendance, 10 voted against the proposal. Thirteen votes of approval were necessary to pass the motion. Twelve commissioners voted in favor.
“I don’t really think we know sometimes what we’re doing. I’m not disparaging the commission. I’m not disparaging the board of education,” Commissioner Paul Stanton, who is also part of the HEW committee, said. “Right now, we find ourselves in the debate of renovations, tear downs, new facilities. We see letters to the editor — the same kind of back and forth … I think we need a fixed, focused, objective.”
“I think it’s high time we had this kind of study done.”
In the proposal, Jesse Register, the director of the Center for the Improvement of Educational Systems at Belmont University, was to conduct a study on items such as facility conditions, capacity, student enrollment and zoning.
The proposal stated the study results were to be presented to the school board and in turn would result in a 10-year plan the school board and in turn would result in a 10-year plan with “recommendations for renovation, modernization, replacement and new construction needs” for the Washington County School District.
Commissioner Pat Wolfe commented on a misconception he felt members of the community had gathered from news of the proposed study; after the HEW committee discussed the plan at previous meetings, communities were concerned the study could result in the closing of some Washington County Schools.
“The main thing is this is not a study to recommend closing schools,” Wolfe said. “This is a study to study what’s happening in education and give us some direction.”
Other commissioners were concerned this was a request that didn’t come from the Washington County Board of Education. Director of Schools for Washington County Kimber Halliburton confirmed at the commission meeting that the school board had discussed and voted on the study.
However, school board member Phillip McLain addressed the commission from the audience with the school system’s other projects in mind.
“There’s a lot of issues on the table that came from our last plan that hadn’t been finished. My second thought is that this is a lot of money to spend right now,” McLain said. “We’re in the middle of construction, we’ve got other capital project things that need to be funded and I think this process could wait a year or two — till we’ve got some other things behind us that we’re already working on.”
McLain also said he remembered former commissioner and HEW chairwoman Katie Baker telling Krieger in a joint meeting with the school board that the request for the study “should be coming from the school board to us, not from us to them.”
At the commission meeting, Krieger also mentioned a former study conducted by planning and design-engineering consultant Kimley-Horn for the county before the design plan for the new Boones Creek School was decided. Commissioner Mitch Meredith cited the previous study’s miscalculations as a reason he felt the county should invest in the Belmont study.
“If you look at the population of the school growth trends, (the study) was off by almost 20 percent,” Meredith said. “Instead of seeing a growth in school enrollment, we’ve seen a significant drop off. So I think using an outdated demographic study to make decisions on spending millions of taxpayer dollars would be the wrong approach.”
Commissioner Suzy Williams, who is also a member of the HEW committee, pointed out that Register’s work came without a cost to the county. The fee, which was not to exceed $60,000, was to come from contracted professionals who would help complete specific portions of the study.
However, the time line of the county’s current capital projects was an aspect to consider for Commissioner Bryan Davenport..
“I understand that we need updated information. But we are in the middle of a capital project. I think we need to finish that,” Davenport said. “We don’t need to make decisions off of old data that may change. But, from what I’m hearing from the school board, at this time, they have a full plate. I don’t know how quickly they could look at this information, this study, and start making decisions going forward.
“We’re not in the situation, I don’t believe, of going forward and spending millions of more dollars. Before we do that, we need to study that. I’m just not sure now is the time for that study.”