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Tools for Schools, Part One: County leaders discuss tools for school success

Solving the funding needs for Washington County students began last week with a called meeting of the county commission and the board of education.
“To move this system forward and to provide the educational resources needed by the children, we must work together,” Director of Schools Ron Dykes said during the Nov. 10 session.
Dykes began with an overview of the following five-year goals adopted by the 15 schools in 2010: Improve student achievement. Provide adequate and equitable facilities and equipment within the system. Provide a safe and healthy environment that is conducive to learning. Promote good citizen ship and a strong work ethic among all students. Expand and promote quality staff development. Provide and retain quality personnel. Enhance parent, community, business and government relationships and involvement within the school system. Secure additional revenue through the county funding body and other sources.
“Student safety is the only thing more important than academic achievement,” Dykes said.
Several legislative mandates and their varying degrees of success were explained, including No Child Left Behind, the Tennessee Diploma Project and the Common Core State Standards. “If the State of Tennessee approached funding with the same fervor they approach standards, it would be a different ballgame,” Dykes said.
He referred to the Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts research study report released by the American Diploma Project in 2004, which indicated a high school diploma was not providing adequate preparation to students. The three key results were: Most high school graduates need remedial help in college; most college students never attain a degree; and most employers say high school graduates lack basic skills in grammar, spelling, writing and basic math.
“The workforce is the number one factor that brings business to a community, and the second is education,” Dykes said.
Students are no longer competing with those in their local community, he said, but rather, on a worldwide level. The goal of the Washington County school system is to produce students who are college and career-place ready.
“We piloted the Common Core long before it was mandated to give our teachers a leg up,” Dykes said. “We want all students working at or above grade level.”
The system also is interested in bringing its facilities up-to-date. Dykes reviewed the four phases of the long-range facilities plan completed last year. The first phase includes selecting a new Boones Creek school site and replacing the elementary and middle schools with one new K-8 school.
The second phase would replace the town’s elementary and middle schools with one new K-8 facility, which would be constructed on the Jonesborough site.
Phase three includes athletic facility upgrades and site improvements at both high schools, and the consideration of athletic sites on the northwest and southwest ends of the county to be shared by the middle schools.
Construction of a new technology center for staff and teacher training, and expansion of the transportation garage and maintenance area would be completed in the fourth phase.
Upon completion, the master plan indicates all K-8 campuses will be located on single sites, with facilities large enough to meet enrollment projections through 2021.
According to Dykes, it is important for phase one to begin immediately with phase two to follow. “I plead with you to consider discussion of moving ahead with phase one,” he told commissioners, adding the project should have been completed in 2008.
Other pressing issues include other schools in need of new roofs or HVAC systems, and operational funding to increase the salaries of teachers and administrators.
Keys to the system’s success, according to Dykes, are competent instructors and administrators; facilities and instructional materials; community support; and funding.
Mayor Dan Eldridge said the most significant number may be the 42.3 percent local funding disparity between the county’s two systems, which results in $4,486 per pupil per year going toward Johnson City students, while students in the county are funded at only $3,152 per pupil annually.
Dykes referred to the law passed in 1947 that requires Washington County to provide an equal amount to Johnson City for every dollar it spends on county students as “archaic.”
Commission Chair Greg Matherly asked Dykes the timeline the system must act if the commission can’t do the front end of the facilities plan.
“We’re wasting serious money to refurbish Boones Creek Middle School because we’re past that point, and we will have to do annual outlay of $1.5 million to keep Boones Creek Elementary and Jonesborough Elementary habitable,” Dykes answered.
School board member Keith Ervin disagreed with ongoing maintenance. “We don’t need to put $1 million on a roof if we’re getting ready to tear it down. We need an answer.”
Eldridge said the county has a bonding capacity of $130 million, and the actual net cost to the taxpayers for the school facilities plan is $214 million.
“Therein lies the need for discussion,” Matherly said.
In a later interview, Eldridge said, “The easy way forward is for Johnson City to acknowledge we’re all in this together and come up with a local solution. If we could overcome the handicap placed on county schools, Washington County wins.”
If a local solution can’t be reached, Eldridge said the county has a very compelling case to take to Nashville. “The inequity has grown to the point of being absurd,” he said. “There is no mechanism in Tennessee law to remedy even $1.”
This is not a new song for Eldridge who has presented the case to leaders in Nashville no less than six times already. “I think they are hearing it now,” he said. “Does that mean we get it fixed this year? Probably not, but we’re starting to get traction.”
Eldridge said the disparity between the city and county school systems is the most compelling point of the argument. “This is what the BEP was created for, but it did not work in Washington County.” The Basic Education Program is the funding formula that determines how state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools.
The delay in a response from the state is another reason a local solution would be better. “We have hit the wall,” Eldridge said. “That bonding capacity is a real number, and we may need the school board to adjust their expectations and look at this in a much larger window of time than ever before.”
See next week’s issue for the response from Johnson City leaders to two possible solutions.