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County mayor not ready to ‘pull the trigger’ on school land purchase

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said he will be asking the county commission to confirm its decision to purchase the McCoy property at the commission’s March meeting.


Staff Writer

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The Washington County Board of Education and the community aren’t the only ones trying to make sense of the Jonesborough K-8 School project.

At the county’s budget committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, Washington County Commissioners and Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge discussed the Jonesborough School’s future.

In light of the school board’s most recent meeting where the board failed to choose another design option, the county mayor said he’s not ready to go ahead with the purchase of the land adjacent to the current Jonesborough Elementary School site.

“In March, I will be asking the county commission to confirm its decision to purchase the McCoy property that adjoins Jonesborough Elementary,” Eldridge said. “Given the school board’s lack of direction, I am not willing — without confirmation from the commission — to pull the trigger on that purchase.

“There will have to be a decision made regarding that property because, where we are today, I will not exercise the option to purchase it.”

Eldridge said the option for the land ends at the end of March.

Though the school board remains in gridlock over a design decision, the committee discussed the board’s design options such as “Scheme 2”, the plan to tear down the round portion, make renovations and additions to the current Jonesborough Elementary School building, and “Scheme 3”, the plan to make renovations and additions to the current Jonesborough Middle School building.

The committee also discussed the option to delay the project which was included in Commissioner Mitch Meredith’s presentation focusing on the financial aspects of each design plan. School board member Keith Ervin said at a recent meeting that he still felt that waiting to build up funds through delaying the project was the way to go.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, Eldridge said he wanted to make it clear that there is no plan for a totally new school for Jonesborough no matter what plan is chosen and when it will be complete.

“What I want everyone to understand is there is no difference in the facility that they’re going to get six years from now versus two years from now,” Eldridge said. “There is so much chatter in the community right now about, ‘Well we’re just going to delay this and get a new school.’ No you’re not. That is not what the school board has requested, that is not what the architect has proposed.

“There has never been a new school proposed for Jonesborough since 2015 when the school board was told very clearly by the county commission, ‘We cannot afford a new school at Boones Creek and a new school at Jonesborough.’”

Commissioner Todd Hensley added that there was a way to build a new school for Jonesborough that no one wanted to mention — and that involves another tax increase and possibly undoing the county’s debt management plan.

“There is a way they can get a new school — but it’s not palpable to any of us sitting here and it totally ignores all we’ve done. They can get a new school by raising taxes another 15 or 20 cents,” Hensley said. “That’s not being said because you’re looking at another narrative coming into an election and they’re not saying what it would take (to build a new Jonesborough School). And they could come in and blow this plan out of the water, which is unfortunate.”

Eldridge mentioned that, in discussing the Jonesborough School project issues with County Commission Chairman Greg Matherly, Matherly mentioned the idea of consolidating Boones Creek School and Jonesborough School into one location at the Boones Creek site, which is currently under construction.

“There is one other option that would allow for a new school. He (Matherly) suggested that the school board should consider doing an addition to the new Boones Creek School for Jonesborough and move the Jonesborough kids there — consolidate them into one new campus and everyone gets a new school,” Eldridge said. “Oh and by the way, it can be done within our budgeted amount.”

With budgetary concerns in mind, in addition to the county’s slipping student enrollment numbers, committee members said consolidations might be an avenue the school system might consider in the future as well.

“Down the road, maybe not in our lifetime, Fall Branch and Sulphur Springs — I don’t think you could pick one to build a new school and not consider a consolidation given the enrollment they’re receiving right now,” Commissioner Rick Storey said, “We’ve had community schools for years, but, going forward, maybe (consolidation) is something we need to think about.”

Meanwhile, Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton had concerns about consolidating Jonesborough and Boones Creek schools.

“Of course it’s up to the school board, but my concern with building a school that large with that amount of capacity is you’re going to lose a lot of the intimacy for students, that relationship-building with teachers and students, in a school that large,” Halliburton said. “You’re talking about a 1600-man school. It’s a unique challenge. You’re going to lose some things with a school that size.”

Halliburton suggested Meredith present his presentation to the school board at a joint meeting. That date is yet to be set.

The next county commission is set for Monday, Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. in Courtroom 7 of the Justice Center, 108 W Jackson Boulevard, Jonesborough. The school board will hold a called meeting for policy review on Thursday, Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m. and a regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, March 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington County Department of Education located at 405 W College Street, Jonesborough.