By MARINA WATERS
City and county residents gathered on Thursday, July 26, to hear Washington County Board of Education candidates sound off on the top issues surrounding the school system.
Seven of the nine candidates running for the six spots available on the county BOE attended the candidate forum. District 1 candidates Kerrie Aistrop, Annette Buchanan and Keith Ervin were joined by District 3 candidates Donald Feathers, David Hammond, Trevor Knight and Mitch Meredith on the panel. Candidates Jason Day (District 1) and Chad Fleenor (District 3) were both unable to attend.
The event started off with two universal questions, the first being “How do you propose to address the needs at the Jonesborough School?”
The Jonesborough School project has been an ongoing debacle for the school board with over a year’s worth of presented design plans for the future K-8 school. Throughout the ongoing discussion involving the project, Aistrop said the project conundrum was what first drew her into attending meetings. To answer the question, Aistrop said she feels the board is close to a decision now that the school’s architect has presented “Scheme 6”, the newest design plan which would include renovations and additions to the current Jonesborough Middle School building.
“The only thing I was advocating for was a safe learning environment,” Aistrop said. “Many people, including school board members, had no clue how bad (Jonesborough Elementary) was. We can’t use 90 percent of the water facilities, spigots and water fountains because rust comes out of them …The board did not understand completely the issues we had in our school.
“But we have Scheme 6 and they have my blessing on it. They are going to gut all the pipes out with the plan they have with remodeling it and adding onto the side. I’m excited we’re going to move on with the project. It’s in budget so the county commission can approve it. I think we’re at a solution.”
Feathers, who is a former first responder and environmental specialist, said he would like to walk through Jonesborough Elementary to view the facility through an environmentalist’s perspective.
“I’d have a field day at Jonesborough Elementary School and at Boones Creek Elementary School. I’d have it shut down probably within about 10 minutes,” Feathers said. “I’ll make you a promise, I’ll come down to Jonesborough Elementary School and volunteer my free time as an environmental specialist and I’ll look through that school for you because it’s a mess and Boones Creek Elementary School’s a mess. You’ve got this problem that’s been there for 25 years? That’s a big environmental issue.”
The other universal question was, “The per-student rate for one city student is $1,400 higher than one county student. How do we address this gap or how do we provide a more equal education for our students?”
Ervin, who is up for reelection, said it isn’t so much the school board’s decision as it is the state’s. Meredith, who is a certified professional accountant and a former county commissioner, echoed Ervin’s take on the matter while adding that there are changes that would have to occur at the state level in order to bridge the per-student gap.
“There really is no way to close that gap under the present situation. The City of Johnson City makes a special appropriation for their school system to the tune of about $10 million a year and that’s what effectively creates that $1,400 gap,” Meredith said. “Of the tax rate (in Washington County), about $24 million goes towards the schools — that’s split half and half between Johnson City.
“The BEP formula, which provides funding, is comprised of a fiscal capacity component. That is determined on a county-wide basis. If it would change to a system-wide basis, you could see that gap narrowing tremendously. It wouldn’t be good for Washington County as a whole. It would cost the city actually more dollars than what it would bring in to the city of Johnson City. The best thing to do is for the county school board and the city school board to sit down together and figure out how to keep that little bit of Armageddon from happening.”
Meredith, Ervin and Buchanan said they felt the county had a need to boost its career and technical education services. Meredith said he felt adding a Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Washington County is something he hopes the city and county school systems can discuss. Meanwhile, Ervin stressed the need for CTE courses throughout high school and beyond.
“I’m a strong CTE person,” Ervin said. “We’ve got to teach these kids a trade. Not every child is going to go to college. I didn’t go to college. I’m a dairy farmer. I can weld, I can (do) electric, I can fix it because it’s what I learned to do. The CTE classes are one of the most important things.”
Buchanan, who is up for reelection, said she felt one of the biggest issues she’d like to work on is the student-to-teacher ratio.
“When you overcrowd our classrooms, you cannot expect these teachers to have the time to spend with every single child every day,” Buchanan said. “The more time they have with each student, that’s your impact right there. The teachers impact our student learning in the classroom with smaller class sizes. That’s what’s going to impact our K-3 and getting them ready to read, getting them reading.”
School safety was also part of the discussion.
Knight said he felt there was no issue of more importance than that of school safety. While answering a question on arming teachers, Knight expressed his hope that a school resource officer be placed in each county school.
“Currently there’s not (an SRO in each county school), but there are plans for there to be in the fall,” Knight said. “But if that’s not the case, I’m going to make it my goal to make it the case. I think that police presence at every school is important.
“The door I came in tonight said I couldn’t have a handgun on me, so I went back to the vehicle and put it back. I’m for carrying a gun if you want to do that and you have the permit to do it. But for arming all of our teachers, I think there are many who would not want to do that. We can look at those extreme measures, but I think for now, we just do what we need to do with the SROs, and with the door locking, cameras and things like that.”
While school safety has become an issue for school systems across the country, board members also touched on very specific topics as well. Hammond, who is running for reelection to the board, responded to the question, “what is your opinion of funding the sports complex over money for classrooms.”
The county recently opted to have a study conducted in order to see how many athletic facilities could be placed on the property setting adjacent to what will soon be the Boones Creek K-8 School. However, in light of the Jonesborough School project roadblocks, some have questioned whether an athletic complex is necessary.
“I have played sports, my children have played and play sports. I’m an advocate of that,” Hammond said. “But first and foremost, we must make sure the classroom is covered. Period. From payroll to facilities. So I cannot support anything on the back of education. That may upset a few, but education is the business we’re in and that has to be first.”
The general election and final day to vote will be held on Thursday, Aug. 2. For more information, go to http://wcecoffice.com/.
What you need to know:
• Event co-sponsored by the Johnson City Press and Jodi Jones (District 11 Washington County Commission candidate)
• Held at Memorial Park Community Center in Johnson City
What the candidates said:
Director of Schools: “These teachers understand the needs of these students and, sometimes, I feel that we are not giving these teachers enough respect. So we have to build a culture in our school system to where these teachers want to stay in Washington County, because if we can make them want to stay, the money is not going to be as important.” — Kerrie Aistrop, District 1
Class sizes: “The teachers impact our student learning in the classroom with smaller class sizes. That’s what’s going to impact our K-3 and getting them ready to read, getting them reading. That’s the key right there, to make sure that those ratios are small on that scale.” — Annette Buchanan, District 1
Teacher raises: “If we get money from the state to go towards raises, we ask the county commission for enough money to give everybody (in the school system) a raise. That’s as fair as fair can be. I get down on my hands and knees and beg (for teacher raises). If you all want to get down on your hands and knees and beg, go for it. Because that’s the only way. — Keith Ervin, District 1
Fiscal stewardship: “We need someone to stop making excuses and start looking at the good ol’ boy network where they’re just spending money like crazy. That needs to stop.” — Donald Feathers, District 3
Nepotism: “I tried to introduce policy on two occasions this past year where no sitting board member can apply for a job or give a family member a job while sitting on the school board. I also took it a step further to where we could not apply for a job or a family member apply for a job a year after that board member’s term is up.” — David Hammond, District 3
School safety: “I think we need to step back and look at the big picture. To me, the most important issue in Washington County Schools is what should be the most important issue in every school right now and that is security and safety.” — Trevor Knight, District 3
Career and technical education: “There are plans to create a TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology) in Washington County. There’s 26 or 27 of them in the state and there are only two that are east of Knoxville. We need another one here and we need it in Washington County. I think a joint effort by both school systems could make that happen.” — Mitch Meredith, District 3