By MARINA WATERS
“Since the last time this body met, a whole lot has happened but nothing has changed,” Washington County Director of Schools Bill Flanary said in regards to the Jonesborough School project and adjacent property at the county’s first Health, Education and Welfare Committee meeting of 2019.
The HEW Committee meeting was a reflection of that statement as no official decisions were made by the five-member committee. However, the committee discussed the status of the property which is vital to the Jonesborough School’s construction plan.
The property, owned by Joe McCoy, has been held up by restrictions from neighboring business Lowe’s Home Improvement throughout the past year. But Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley said Lowe’s has most recently expressed willingness to lift the restrictions on the property.
“We kind of had a couple flip flops in this initially,” Seeley said. “It sounded like they weren’t going to be willing to release (the restrictions) and then there was some change of heart. The last (response) seemed more positive. They’re working on the language on the release and will get that to the county and Mr. McCoy.”
So where does this leave the “Scheme 6” design plan that was chosen by the school board for the Jonesborough School?Commissioner and HEW Committee Chairman Danny Edens said the McCoy property is a critical part of the design plan decision that awaits the commission. Until restrictions are officially lifted it seems inaction will be the only action.
“I think we need to hear from Lowe’s (before deciding on the design plan),” Edens said. “We need to know that they are releasing those restrictions to the county. Once we know that, I would be happy for this committee to meet for a special called meeting. But right now, I think we have to wait on Lowe’s.”
The county’s option to purchase the property runs out at the end of March, but commissioners said they’re hoping it’s sooner rather than later that a Jonesborough plan is considered.
“When I ran for office, I went to the town hall meeting that was held at Jonesborough School,” Commissioner Jodi Jones said at the HEW Committee meeting. “There were so many parents, teachers and administrators who had been dealing with this decision process for several years. Every time I sit in this chair, I also try to put myself in the shoes of people who are waiting on this decision. And I realize how frustrating it has been and is continuing to be.
“Some of these things feel quite outside of our control. Lowe’s making a decision on something is not something we can do anything about. I think all of us are really committed to putting in the extra time to make the decision making go quicker, but it is a really challenging decision.”
The project also effects the school system’s capital project priority list, which was redrafted by the school board in 2018.
In regards to the school’s priority list, the county’s accounts and budgets director, Mitch Meredith, sent a memo to Edens listing the county’s revenue dollars as well as the funds already used or committed. Meredith listed a negative amount of $2,092,227 — leaving $0 of actual education funds available in the capital projects fund.
“I don’t want to speak for (Meredith), but he left me with the impression that any capital projects that we vote to send on to budget to fund will have to be based on borrowing capacity,” Edens said. “There are no funds available other than borrowing, if I understood him correctly.”
While the memo was discussed, the priority list has yet to see action from the committee. In consideration of impending school needs, and other needs throughout the county, Jones said she felt the commission will have to consider the importance of its upcoming projects, mainly the Jonesborough School project.
“From everything I’ve heard, the cost of Scheme 6 takes us pretty close to our debt ceiling,” Jones said. “As we meet as commissioners and consider what our priorities are county-wide, this would have to be right at the top of the list because we won’t be able to address other priorities we have as a county if we take on that project. I’m not saying we shouldn’t.
“We’ll just have to be able to say this one school trumps a lot of other things that might be important. We’ll have that conversation when we have it. And we need to have them in a time sensitive way because our constituents are waiting for an answer.”