By MARINA WATERS
The Washington County Board of Education might have found an alternative route that could lead to an answer to the board’s Jonesborough K-8 School project woes.
At the school board’s March 1 meeting, board member David Hammond made a motion for the Washington County Commission to consider entering a local agreement to trade the Boones Creek Middle School property deed for funds in return. The motion passed in a narrow 5-4 vote.
Hammond said those funds could then be used for the over-budget portion of the Jonesborough School project cost, which the board is lacking on some design plans.
“For months I have suggested we use money from properties we’re going to sell and I was told it was illegal,” Hammond said. “But our school board attorney, Scott Bennett, and I discussed this last month; We can enter an inter-local agreement with our county commission based on the sale of that property. We’d actually be turning the deed over to them.
“I would just like for the county commission and the board to consider this. Let’s get this behind us.”
Hammond’s motion came three days after the county commission meeting where county mayoral candidate and Commissioner Joe Grandy mentioned possibly reducing the tax levy in the upcoming fiscal year budget in light of the delay on the school project.
“If they’re not going to do a Jonesborough project,” Grandy said at the commission meeting. “I think it’s just disingenuous to ask tax payers to pay for a project they’re not going to do.”
To some board members, the Jonesborough project has gone from a waiting game to a blame game. In light of the possibility of a tax-levy decrease, a shifting construction schedule and the threat of increased interest rates and construction costs, Chairman Jack Leonard, in a fiery discussion, placed the need for a decision on the board in order to make moves on the Jonesborough School project.
“Board, we were the ones that changed the plans. We all voted to accept the 40 cents based on a new Boones Creek School and a renovation of Jonesborough. That’s why the county commission voted for the 40 cents,” Leonard said. “We’re the ones that have changed the game plan. And we keep trying to blame the county commission. We are the ones that are responsible for this mess because we can’t make a decision.
“I’m just telling the tax payers of Washington County why we’re having to continue to wait on the Jonesborough project when we have the project and we have the money now to build them a school.”
At the meeting, Washington County Commissioner and Finance Director Mitch Meredith told the board the issue with Hammond’s plan for a local agreement with the county regarding the Boones Creek Middle School property is not having cash for the project.
“From a financial perspective, the problem is you have to have the cash in-hand,” Meredith said. “Our issue is that if we need to fund the project with $3 million, we have to pay the contractor to do that. If we don’t have that cash available currently, we have to borrow for educational purposes, which makes that a $6 million debt because of sharing (with Johnson City).”
When it came to Hammond’s recommendation, Meredith wasn’t the only one who voiced concerns; school board member Todd Ganger said the agreement with the county could send the wrong message to the community.
“I don’t want to set that precedent of turning land over when we need money because I think it’s going to come back to bite us,” Ganger said. “I really think we need to look forward. We have major projects that have to get done in this system and we’re trying to spend extra money on something that, really, we shouldn’t be.”
Meanwhile, school board member Mike Masters asked about the value of the property. Hammond said he felt a property appraisal would need to be done.
“How do we know the cost on this?,” Masters said. “I don’t feel comfortable turning over the deed on anything until I know what I’m going to get in return.”
Two of the four design plans were up for discussion, but failed at Thursday’s board meeting; Phillip McLain made a motion, which failed in a 6-3 vote, to accept the Scheme 2A plan that includes renovations, additions and the tearing down of the round portion of the current Jonesborough Elementary School building. But McLain was ready to suggest a few adjustments. He suggested cutting two of the wings out of the proposed plan and instead adding another level to the one remaining wing. The plan also included portable classrooms, which he admitted was the “wild and crazy” part of his suggestion.
“It would get the round building torn down, it would get us as many rooms as the addition to the middle school would have. if we couldn’t redistrict to where we could reduce the students that will fit the school, then perhaps, until we get the property sold down the road, we could put some portables in if we absolutely had to.”
Meanwhile, Clarence Mabe also made a motion to accept the Scheme 3 plans.
“We can be sure we’ll get something done and it won’t be a gamble that we may get the money or we may get the land,” Mabe said. “We’ll get a nice facility.”
That motion failed in a 5-4 vote.
Leonard, who voted in favor of the Scheme 3 plan, said he felt the community’s issues with the current Jonesborough Middle School building would be addressed should the Scheme 3 plan be chosen. He also pointed out that Sulphur Springs and Fall Branch schools were both older than the middle school facility.
“I know when we went on our school visits to Sulphur Springs and Fall Branch, their buildings are even older than the Jonesborough building and they look great. They were having school. Scheme 3 is going to practically be a brand new building. The only thing that will be there will be a shell of a building we’re seeing now,” Leonard said. “(School architect Tony Street) has already told us the plumbing and everything is being torn out of it. We’ve heard complaints about the water and about the smell — all that’s going to be brand new.
“I just don’t understand why it’s alright for kids in Fall Branch and Sulphur Springs to go to those schools, but it’s not alright for the Jonesborough kids to go to Jonesborough Middle School. What’s wrong with that?”