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Washington County and Johnson City school system collaboration sparks debate

educationBy COLLIN BROOKS
Staff Writer
[email protected]
A collaboration between Washington County and Johnson City on the usage of a new Boones Creek K-8 school has been examined before, but it must be examined again, according to Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge. That is the only way he will feel comfortable when an eventual property tax hike is presented in a couple of months.
“Raising taxes has to be a matter of last resort,” Eldridge said. “From my perspective as the chief financial officer of the county, from the budget committee’s perspective — being the group to make a recommendation to the full commission — it is our responsibility to ensure we have considered every alternative, to either diminishing the cost or increasing revenue, short of a tax increase.
“If someone asks me about this, I want to be able to look them in the face and say ‘You know, we did not have any other viable option. We considered everything.’”
That is one of the reasons that the budget committee issued a statement during a meeting on Wednesday, May 11, which read, “The Washington County School System has presented a need for two new K-8 schools in Boones Creek and Jonesborough. Similarly, the Johnson City Board of Education has recently announced a need for three new schools within the Johnson City School System. Based upon information available at this time, the anticipated capital needs for Washington County Schools, as well as the additional matching funding required to be shared with Johnson City would result in a tax rate increase of approximately $0.44 to $0.48 for all Washington County citizens. Furthermore, based upon present information, every $10 million in debt issued by Washington County for school facilities will cost taxpayers approximately $25 million in tax revenue to fund the debt payments.
“In light of this information, as well as anticipated continuing decline in enrollment in the Washington County School System and very modest increases in Johnson City School System’s enrollment, and the additional enrollment capacity that will result from construction of new K-8 schools in Boones Creek and Jonesborough, the Committee believes it would be mutually beneficial to citizens of both Washington County and Johnson City for their respective governments and boards of education to consider a joint plan to utilize the proposed Boones Creek facility under an operational structure to be determined.”
The statement released “surprised” Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes, who was present during the meeting.
“The reason being, that two years ago, the discussion, the investigation, the assessment of a collaborative school occurred, involving the Johnson City manager (Pete Petersen), Mayor Dan (Eldridge), Dr. Richard Bales and myself took place. We had maybe four meetings and we all brought data and procedure issues that would have to be addressed before a collaboration could occur.
“It seemed at that time that it was a little overwhelming.”
Some of those things included managerial and physical components of the school. A task force was formed last year to check into the opportunities that
“They came to the same conclusion, that there were major hurdles that would be extremely difficult — let’s just say that — to accomplish,” Dykes said. “So they began discussing a collaboration between school districts regarding career technical education and that is where that discussion is.”
The budget committee has given the task to Dr. Paul Stanton, who said by phone on Monday morning that he is still in the process of gathering members of the committee. He said he has already confirmed Washington County commissioners Lynn Hodge, Joe Grandy and David Tomita and will try and add Johnson City Superintendent Dr. Richard Bales, Dykes and his predecessor Kimber Halliburton and members of the Johnson City School Board, along with members of the Washington County Board of Education to discuss the potential of a collaborative effort.
However, before the committee has its first meeting, Stanton said that he wants to have the support of the full commission and the school board before he proceeds..
“I am going to have to have support from both school boards and both directors and superintendents to go forward,” Stanton said. “And I will ask (Kimber) Halliburton, (Ron) Dykes, (Todd) Ganger, Richard (Bales) and (Tim) Belisle, to be on the initial committee and will probably ask them for another name or two from the city.
“So I am looking at probably around eight people, if both sides want to go forward for consideration. Now if either side says ‘heck no,’ then it’s not going to work anyway. But what I am trusting is that both sides will think it is intriguing and is something that may have some merit.”
Johnson City Superintendent Dr. Richard Bales said that the two systems have had these discussions about a joint-school before and they really never got anywhere.
“We have talked about that collaboration a number of times,” Dr. Bales said. “The county and city has a task force that they nominated members for, so it has been talked about there and Mr. Dykes and I have had the conversation.
“There are just a lot of obstacles to doing that.”
Some of those obstacles include, whose school is it? Where do the kids go once they finish 8th grade? Also, Johnson City schools currently have a split between fourth and fifth grade and again between sixth and seventh grade, before splitting to go to Science Hill after eighth grade, while the Washington County system only splits at eighth grade.
Other questions that might come up are philosophical differences on education and grading scales, not to mention the teacher’s pay scale, which can be close to $10,000 more for Johnson City teachers.
It’s issues like that halted the conversation, according to Dykes.
“Those were just some of the basic problems that we couldn’t come to a conclusion on,” he said.
While Johnson City does have a plan that mentions renovations and perhaps three new schools, it is a plan that spans to 2030, and has never been acted on by the school board or the Johnson City commission. Bales said that the main things that need to be addressed right away, before new schools are talked about, are a new gym and new cafeteria at Liberty Bell Middle School. So new schools aren’t in the near future for Johnson City.
“Those right now are what our priorities would be, then I think we need to look at expanding a couple of our elementary schools first” Bales said. “The key piece of information with that plan is that our school board or our commission have not taken a vote on any of that plan. It was strictly for information purposes.”
Bales said he is willing to listen to anything that would benefit the students of Johnson City and Washington County, but the only way consolidation could occur is if Johnson City wanted out of the school business, and that is something that has never been said.
“My understanding of the law is that the city taxpayers and the city commission would have to say that they want out of the school business and that is a piece of the discussion that I have yet to hear (from our side),” Bales said.
Consolidation will not be a topic of discussion during Stanton’s committee meeting and it is not something that Eldridge said he would ever be in favor of.
“There are other way to substantial improve the educational opportunity in Washington County, without consolidating and that is what we need to be focused on. That is one of the reasons that a shared school came up. How do we take the resources we have and make the system more efficient, effective and improve the outcomes of the kids, which is what we are all about? We aren’t all about building schools, we are all about educating the kids, we lose sight of that sometimes.”