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‘Better Schools’ faces challenge as deadline nears

By COLLIN BROOKS
Time is ticking and drafts have been going back and forth on legislation that is being called the “Coalition for Better Schools Act,” which would give Washington County commissioners the opportunity to think about constructing two new schools for Washington County, instead of just the one Boones Creek K-8.
The proposed act would amend Tennessee Code Annotated 9-21-129 and 49-3-1003 in order to provide the Washington County Commission and other county commissions in the state with the option to pay an annual debt service amount to cities, instead of borrowing that same lump sum.
But time is getting scarce if the cities and counties involved want this act to be presented to the legislature this session.
“We are very hopeful that this will happen this year. There have been a lot of hours put into this thing, but time is running extremely short at this point,” City Manager of Johnson City M. Denis Peterson said.
No county may be impacted greater by the passing of this legislation than Washington County, as commissioners have been hesitant to set improvements to Jonesborough Elementary and Middle School in motion, until they have a definitive answer on this legislation.
If this legislation passes, it brings with it an opportunity to discuss the construction of a second K-8 school for Jonesborough.
“This legislation has a great deal of bearing on the county commission’s ability to even consider replacing those schools,” Eldridge said. “Before we came up with this idea, it wasn’t even an option.”
If this legislation isn’t seen this year, if could be on the table for next year. But the Washington County Department of Education’s Five Year Capital Improvement plan calls for $5.2 million for 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 fiscal years for the Jonesborough schools, with another $4.7 million called for in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
That is a third of what Boones Creek K-8 will be built for.
“It creates an option for the County Commission,” Eldridge said. “The existing statute says that the only option for the county commission, if they borrow money for capital improvements to the school, then they share those dollars based on the ratio of pupils.”
Today that ratio sits at 53 percent of the student body attending Washington County schools, while the other 47 percent attend Johnson City schools. That essentially means for every dollar that the county borrows, they must share another dollar with the city.