Carter school board not thrilled with long range plan to close some schools

John Thompson • Mar 19, 2013 at 8:58 AM

ELIZABETHTON — The Carter County School Board gave a chilly reception to the recommendations of the Long Range Facilities Planning Team on Monday afternoon. The team’s report and recommendations were discussed in a workshop session, so no vote was taken, but the comments of some board members made it clear they would not support it.

The recommended option was to build a new high school to replace the four current high schools in the county. There would also be consolidation of middle schools and elementary schools to reduce the total number of schools to nine. That would be done by renovating existing buildings. The projected total cost is $100 million.

Dave Buck, a school board member from the western section of the county, said “I am opposed to this plan because it wipes out the schools on the west end of the county.” Buck noted the recommendation that Central, Keenburg and Range elementary schools and Happy Valley High School should be closed.

Craig Davis, who represents Stoney Creek, said some of the students who now go to Unaka would not drive to the recommended location of the centralized high school on Gap Creek Highway near Hampton. He said parents have told him their children would rather drive to Elizabethton High School.

Board Chariman Kelly Crain said, “I am concerned about two things, the geography and the financing. It would be a major burden on the taxpayers.”

Board member Jerry McMahan, who led the planning team, said the financing could be handled in several ways to make it more manageable. One would be to just borrow enough for the high school and use the savings from consolidation to pay for the consolidations at the lower grades. There was a wide degree of opinions on what a new high school would cost, ranging from $30 million to $100 million.

Director of Schools Kevin Ward said now is a good time to build, based on the low bond rates.

While the planning team’s recommendation was for a consolidation to nine schools in the county, with only a single high school, there were several other options provided in the team’s strategic report. He said the team had provided the numbers to use for other considerations.

McMahan said the county could not postpone a decision indefinitely.

He said the team spent a lot of time getting the data for a snapshot of the county’s condition so that the best decision could be made for what was best for the students and what was best for the taxpayers.

He asked if the taxpayers could afford the burden for 20 years, but also asked if the taxpayers would be paying even more if nothing was done.

“Our infrastructure is falling down,” McMahan said. “It is going to cost a lot more ... You can’t afford to do it and you certainly can’t afford not to do it.”

He said a decision to do nothing was “awfully short term and narrow minded.”

“There are other ways to skin the cat,” Ward said, referring to the other options in the strategic plan. He said discussions could continue in small groups.

“Do we need to make a decision tonight?” Ward asked. “I don’t think so, but I agree with Mr. McMahan that we can’t wait 20 years.”

Ward suggested more discussion on the matter be held after a more short-term decision be made on whether to close Range Elementary School.

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