By MARINA WATERS
It wasn’t a Washington County Board of Education meeting, but that didn’t keep a decision regarding the land adjacent to the future Jonesborough School project from being the center of discussion at the Washington County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, June 25.
The commission opted to vote down an amended resolution to purchase the property from the McCoy family for no more than $777,900 in a 10-13 vote. Following the vote, a motion to have the county mayor see if the property owner will extend the due diligence period on the purchase agreement another six months passed 20-3.
The discussion was brought about by Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge in the county mayor’s report. The original resolution said it was the mayor’s recommendation to allow the purchasing agreement on the land “to lapse since the board of education has not approved a plan that utilizes the subject property.”
“I just want it back in front of you to reconsider your decision,” Eldridge said to the commission at Monday’s meeting. “If you want to go forward with it, great. If you want to reconsider the change in circumstances, great. But I am not going to make that decision for you. I would be acting well out of my authority
to be making that decision for you.”
He pointed out that back in January of 2017, the commission authorized that the mayor enter a purchasing agreement with the McCoys regarding the 15-acre property when the commission also approved the plan to turn the current Jonesborough Elementary School site into the new Jonesborough K-8 School and the current Jonesborough Middle School building into an academic magnet. However, the board of education has since opted to use the funds for an academic magnet for the Jonesborough School project.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, school board members Annette Buchanan and Keith Ervin, who are both up for reelection, addressed the board to advocate for the purchase of the property. Kerrie Aistrop, a Jonesborough parent, who is also running for a spot on the Washington County BOE, also addressed the commission in hopes of an extension regarding the purchasing agreement.
“What I’m asking is, before you make the decision on rescinding that property, give the school board the July meeting,” Aistrop said.
“Give us 30 days to see if they can come up with a vote (regarding the Jonesborough School project). If the HEW Committee can pass it through, we can get a school for Jonesborough.”
Aistrop added that at the last meeting, the BOE garnered a 8-1 vote regarding a school project. However, the vote was cast in favor of allowing the school’s architect to come up with an in-budget version of the Scheme 2 plan, which allows for making renovations and additions to the current elementary school building in Jonesborough while also tearing down the round portion of that building. The architect is yet to present that revised plan, with a cost, to the full school board.
Some commissioners, however, wanted to see a concrete plan before agreeing to purchase the McCoy property that school board members have said could potentially be the home of athletic fields.
“The school board has demonstrated to me at least on five different occasions that they can’t make a sound business decision,” Commissioner Lynn Hodge said. “Then you come to us tonight, last minute, and say you’ve got another plan. You have nothing concrete to present to us. We have nothing to look at. We have nothing to base our facts on. And you ask us to vote for the purchase of this property for $750,000 with basically, in my opinion, no plan.”
Other commissioners maintained their faith that the school board could produce a plan for the school project.
“I don’t understand why we are wanting to pull this,” Commissioner Danny Edens said. “It’s not our decision to make. It’s the school board’s decision. I know it’s taking forever, but I still have confidence in our school board that they can come up with a scheme or a plan regardless of the price change (due to increasing construction costs and interest rates) or anything else. Why would we not have already purchased this property?”
Eldridge said there were two reasons the property hadn’t already been purchased since the commission’s approval in 2017; he reiterated that the plan attached to the land purchase was abandoned along with the plan for the academic magnet and K-8 school, but he also cited restrictions set on the land by Lowe’s Home Improvement, which has a location next to the property, as a hold up.
Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley said the purchasing agreement on the land has been extended five times in the past 17 months, in part due to the restrictions which effect parking and access to property on the land. Seeley said those restrictions are yet to be lifted, and Eldridge said the county would not close on the property until they could get a clean title free of those restrictions.
Meanwhile, commissioners still felt the land was most valuable to the Jonesborough community no matter what decision is made by the local school board regarding the school project.
“There is no more property to be had at Jonesborough,” Commissioner Mike Ford said. “If we forgo this and we let it slip through our fingers, I see us out there in the country somewhere trying to find another suitable location when we’ve already got it, if we can just purchase this property. Sulphur Springs is landlocked. Gray Elementary is the same way. They can’t go anywhere. We need to be buying this piece of property while we can. I don’t think this county can afford to lose the opportunity to purchase this. If we don’t buy it now, we’re done.”