By MARINA WATERS
Questions on the money available — or not available — for the Jonesborough K-8 School have left county and school officials grappling on what the next steps will be for the school project.
At Washington County’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee meeting on Thursday, Nov. 1, commissioners opted to defer action on the latest design plan, “Scheme 6”, to make additions and renovations to the current Jonesborough Middle School site. Committee member and Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said he wanted the full financial picture before moving ahead with the latest Jonesborough School design plan.
“There was a lot of discussion the other night about how we would pay for Scheme 6,” Matherly said, referring to a joint commission and school board meeting that took place the week prior. “I’m just going to tell you upfront, before I vote on this project, I want to see all the options on how to pay for it. I just don’t feel like I’m ready to vote on Scheme 6 right at this moment.
“I want to see where we’re going and where we’re headed. We can sit here and recommend it to budget, but I don’t think this committee wants to do that. I think we’d like to see all the options before we move forward.”
School board member and county finance and administration director Mitch Meredith painted that financial picture at the joint meeting on Monday, Oct. 29, where he said there are no funds in the current year to spend on a Jonesborough School project without borrowing the money. He also told the group the county paid part of Boones Creek’s total cost with pennies from the Jonesborough School project.
Meredith told the Herald & Tribune the 32 pennies set aside for school capital project improvements — which were collected from the 2016 tax increase — were not allocated specifically for each project.
“Nowhere in official action by the commission are there any pennies allocated to anything,” Meredith said. “The commission had to determine how much we need for our ongoing capital needs. Those were not pennies that were being set aside for any individual project. That was just an amount to determine how much revenue the county could generate to assist in funding those projects.”
For the county school board, however, the current outlook for the Jonesborough project is disappointing, school board member Phillip McLain said.
“After a 40-cent tax hike and being told that 5 cents of that 40 cents would be for Jonesborough,” McLain said, “I cannot begin to describe to you the disappointment that I have in this system and where it is at this moment. I think disappointment is probably the best word I can use at this point.”
From the 32 cents allocated for the school system, 14 pennies were budgeted for the Boones Creek project, five for Jonesborough renovations, three for other school capital items, two for school technology and two for school bus replacements. And in January of 2017, the commission set a budget limit of $25 million for the Boones Creek School, $20,750,000 for the Jonesborough School and $1,815,000 in “contingency for other needs associated with or related to the projects”. However, at that time, the Jonesborough project figure still included renovating the elementary school into a K-8 and renovating the middle school into an academic magnet.
The commission’s resolution also said the figures were “intended to assist the board of education for the purposes of planning, architectural and engineering design and project management, but do not constitute an authorization for expenditure nor a commitment to the funding amounts listed by the board of county commissioners.” It also said “the funding for the projects will be provided through anticipated borrowing.”
Meredith said the tax increase was created back in 2016 with a $10 million renovation in mind for the elementary school and the middle school. Those two renovations, he said, were planned to be supported by 5 pennies for the Jonesborough schools.
Now, he said, the county could either delay the project and let the money build as more pennies are freed up, (Boones Creek will be paid off in 2022 and nine pennies would be available by 2023), or the commission could opt to borrow $40 million for a $20 million project in Jonesborough (half of the $20 million, by law, would have to be shared with Johnson City). He said that last option, however, would come with financial constraints.
“(The commission) would either be out of the borrowing business for a long time or they would have to raise their debt limit restriction (if $40 million was borrowed for a $20 million project in Jonesborough). I guess anything’s possible, but is it fiscally responsible to do that?”, Meredith said. “I don’t know if (the commission) would see that as a fiscally responsible move to do that. From my perspective, it’s pushing it to the limit.”
As for the school board, who is also considering roof replacements at the elementary and middle schools in Jonesborough while the K-8 school plan remains in limbo, the financial outlook is strapped with uncertainty regarding what happens next with the project.
The school board currently has three Jonesborough School design plans that were approved by the county school system in the past year and a half. McLain said the board plans to rescind two of those previous plans, which were both said to be out of budget by the county commission. He also said they plan to keep the latest plan, Scheme 6, on the books for commission consideration. As for the future of the project, McLain said it’s now in the hands of the county commission.
“What’s going to happen with the Jonesborough project is a good question. I don’t know,” McLain said. “Obviously you have to remember it’s the school board’s job to decide what the school needs and it’s the commission’s job to fund it or not. The next step is actually up to the commission and what they decide to do.”
The BOE will meet on Thursday, Nov. 8, at 6:30 p.m. at the school system’s central office. The HEW committee is set to revisit the Jonesborough School design plan and the potential purchase of the school’s adjacent property at its next meeting on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 1 p.m. in the first floor conference room of the Historic Courthouse in Jonesborough.