By MARINA WATERS
It had been a long three years for the students, parents and community members awaiting a decision regarding the Jonesborough School project. It was also a long night when, just before 11 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, the Washington County Commission passed a resolution approving a construction project for a new Jonesborough K-8 School.
The commission voted 10-4-1 to approve a lease-purchase arrangement and inter-local agreement with the Town of Jonesborough to build a new school with athletic facilities off of North Cherokee Road. Commissioners Phil Carriger, Mike Ford, Steve Light and Robbie Tester were opposed. Commissioner Jim Wheeler, who is also the town’s attorney, recused himself from the vote.
“We have a dire need in Jonesborough right now,” Commissioner Danny Edens said regarding the school vote. “I personally feel like we’re lucky we don’t have a lawsuit over the issues in this school building we’re talking about. We have the opportunity to do something. We have the opportunity to do the right thing for the children of Jonesborough.”
The four agreements with the town include an inter-local agreement between the county, the town and the Washington County Board of Education; a lease-to-own deal for the school building; a lease for the athletic and recreation facilities; and a purchase-option agreement.
The decision to approve the plan came after five hours worth of discussion — and a slew of amendments.
The Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen held a meeting at 4 p.m. on Monday where it unanimously passed amendments to the inter-local agreement, building lease and facilities lease, which the county also passed, with a few changes.
The biggest change was related to the project’s total cost. At the county’s called Oct. 17 meeting, the attorney representing the county, Culver Schmid, said the county had a project cap at $32 million. At the Oct. 28 meeting, Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest suggested the county consider changing the amount to $32,750,000 to cover construction costs with interest. That amendment passed with a 9-5-1 vote.
The conversation didn’t just involve the town, the county and the county school system, though.
Before the school vote, the commission also passed a resolution allowing the county mayor to investigate and negotiate with the City of Johnson City and the Local Education Agency “to identify terms that would resolve dispute over the interpretation of the Jonesborough Proposal.”
Because the school project would be financed by the town, which, unlike the county, is not required by law to share education project funds with city school systems within the same county, the plan does not include shelling out funds to the Johnson City School System.
Another proposal was also suggested at the meeting.
Commissioner Phil Carriger said he felt he had found a way to save the taxpayers at least $12 million. Carriger said he was told Johnson City could borrow the $32 million for the Jonesborough School at a 2.5 to 2.65 percent interest rate. He also said Johnson City’s city manager emailed him with a proposal to borrow the money for the Jonesborough School with the city “acting as a financial conduit only,” Carriger said. The proposal, the commissioner said, would eliminate a facilities lease payment with the town.
“That got me to thinking, ‘is there a way to pay the taxpayers some money?’ We’re all taxpayers here,” Carriger said. “I think this is something — because of the size of the money — we need to take a look at, pause and think about. We have an obligation to see if there’s a better deal out there for the taxpayers.”
Edens and Commissioner Kent Harris questioned the savings Carriger mentioned. Meanwhile, commissioners Freddie Malone, Larry England, Jodi Jones and Suzy Williams voiced interest in Carriger’s suggestion.
However, Malone said he felt they had a “bird in hand” with the town’s school proposal. He also asked if the town would be willing to give the county a 30-to-45-day evaluation period to consider the suggestion.
“I want the best of both worlds. So I’m intrigued,” Malone said. “I am grateful for (the town) having brought us to this point. But if there is an opportunity to save $12 million, I don’t want to turn a blind eye to that either. I would hate to walk away tonight and not approve what we are so close to accomplishing, but with the understanding that we are at least going to evaluate this (proposal) with the City of Johnson City.”
Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest said more than half of the money for the facilities lease will go towards maintenance of the recreational and athletic facilities. The town also agreed to take on maintenance of the Jonesborough School grounds, along with the athletic facilities, and Boones Creek School’s athletic facilities and school grounds, as amended in the inter-local agreement.
As for delaying the bond issuance for 30 days, Vest said that was out of the question.
“There’s no way we get this rate we have right now (if there is a delay). It could go up, it could go down,” Vest said. “Yeah, roll the dice. But you’ve rolling the dice for three years. It’s time for eight or nine of you to say let’s get this thing done. It’s time to make something happen.”