Radical school consolidation plan faces Carter officials

John Thompson • Feb 9, 2013 at 8:02 PM

ELIZABETHTON — During the past several years when Carter County was planning and building a new jail, the county’s school system did not make any demands for new schools, and only two schools, Hampton Elementary and Cloudland Elementary have been built in the past 20 years.

But now that the jail project is completed and with some long-term debt set to be paid off in the coming years, the building of new schools will once again become a topic of discussion.

In anticipation of that development, the Carter County Board of Education appointed a Long Range Facilities Planning Team to conduct a study of the school system’s future needs and make recommendations on how to most effectively meet those needs.

While the study has been presented in a workshop, it has not formally been presented to the school board yet. Board Chariman Kelly Crain said the plan will require a lot of study once the board receives it.

“I can’t speak for the board,” Crain said, “but I believe we will have to hold some discussion sessions about it.”

Crain said those discussions might be put off for some time.

“Right now, we are preparing to go into our budget workshops,” Crain said. This year’s budget discussions could be especially difficult because this year’s budget was balanced using about $600,000 in one-time cuts in such areas as textbooks and school bus purchases. Those cuts will have to be made up this year.

Interim Director of Schools Kevin Ward said the long range facilities plan also includes several options the board may want to examine, including the future operation of more than one high school.

There are also some intangibles that could not be included in a cost analysis that may have a major impact in the decisions. These include the concerns of the communities served by schools that would be threatened by closure.

County Commissioner Charles Von Cannon mentioned one of those intangibles while he was attending a meeting of the Education Committee last week.

“Athletics,” Von Cannon said, referring to the traditional and heated rivalries that have been a part of the school system and the communities for many decades. “There are (Happy Valley) Warriors and (Hampton) Bulldogs and (Cloudland) Highlanders and (Unaka) Rangers who will not want this.”

The facilities team completed its mission after a year of public meetings in communities all across the county and with the gathering of reams of data on the numbers of students, teachers, funding and conditions of the school buildings.

The planning team’s leader was school board member Jerry McMahan. Last week he completed his presentation of the team’s recommendations to the rest of the board during an informal workshop session. The recommendations, if adopted, would be a dramatic consolidation of the system’s schools from 16 schools to nine. McMahan said this is part of a trend and that the county once operated more than 50 schools.

Those recommendations include consolidation of all four of the county’s high school’s into one centrally located high school built to accommodate 1,600 students.

Once the high school is in operation, the former high schools would be renovated and converted to middle schools for grades 6-8. That would free up space in the elementary schools. The team recommended that only five elementary schools should remain open: Cloudland, Hampton, Happy Valley, Hunter and Little Millgan.

Elementary schools that would be closed under the plan are: Central, Keenburg, Range, Unaka and Valley Forge. The recommendation was that operations at Cloudland and Little Milligan should remain the same except students in grades 6-8 should be transferred to Hampton Middle School.

Hampton Elementary would house K-5 students from Hampton and Valley Forge; Hunter would be used for K-5 students now at Hunter, Unaka, Keenburg and Range; Happy Valley Elementary would house K-5 students from Happy Valley and Central.

The plan also calls for the county to jointly operate the old Herman Robinson campus of the Tennessee Technoloogy Center-Elizabethton. The Elizabethton City School System would be a partner in the operation of the technical education facility once TTC-E turns the campus over to them.

The study reported that all the high school buildings are more than 50 years old and the two oldest elementary school buildings (Keenburg and Range) were built in 1909.

The team found that if all the older buildings were refurbished they could be used for years to come, but one of the biggest facilities problems was the continued use of “temporary” modular classrooms at most of the schools. The team report said the modulars had outlived their use, safety and purpose and that “at this time the modular units are a large drain on the school maintenance budget and should be eliminated to be fiscally stable in the future.”

The detailed study of the facilities led the team to conclude that: “Considering the age, design and capacity of the current schools, it will be prudent to consolidate and merge the students into fewer buildings.”

Another concern for the team was the number of teachers the system provides for the number of students. The average teacher/pupil ratio for all schools in the county is 12 students per teacher. The lowest ratio is at Range, with only nine students per teacher. The highest is Happy Valley Middle, with 15 students per teacher. The team said personnel costs could be reduced by consolidating schools and increasing the ration to 18 or 19 students per teacher.

The team said the cost of running the school system had grown from $29.6 million in 2002 to $40.5 million in 2012. It projected the trend would mean the cost of running the schools in 2032 would be $60.3 million. McMahan said the cost of maintaining the buildings rises by $900,000 a year.

The team’s recommendation would require the largest bond issue in the county’s history. The county must split any school bond revenue with the city of Elizabethton based on the ratio of county students to city students, which means the city would receive about 27 percent of the revenue. Projecting an interest rate of 3.25 percent, the county would have to borrow $100.5 million to be paid back over 20 years. That would mean an annual payment by the county of $7 million. The study projected the consolidation would provide a savings of $4.56 million per year in the elimination of teaching and principal positions which could be applied to the payback.

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