Johnson City will expand.
School leaders know it, county officials expect it — and say it might not be all bad for the county — but they’re looking to the city in hopes of getting a peek at the specifics of future annexation plans.
“We know at some point, Johnson City’s going to be moving in our direction,” Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes said at Tuesday evening’s meeting of the county Joint Education Committee. “Annexation is inevitable, it’s just knowing when.”
The county school district is currently considering options for dealing with the overcrowded and aging Boones Creek elementary and middle schools.
An outside consultant firm hired to help develop a long-range plan for the district recommended building a new school for those students currently attending the decades old schools, but district and county officials are afraid that Johnson City will annex most of the Boones Creek area and build its own school shortly after their facility is completed, making it under-used.
“If it occurs just a few years after Washington County builds a school in the northeastern section of the county, one of those schools will have a lot less students than it originally did, and in all probability, it’s going to be the county school,” Dykes said. “That’s going to be a loss to the taxpayers.”
Dykes said conversations between members of the governing boards and the school boards operating within the county have been productive, but said more specificity is needed.
“We’ve been working together on some collaborative efforts, and the conversations have been very candid and direct and informative,” he said. “But what would be ideal is if the two funding bodies, as well as the two boards of education, come to some type of common ground to truly expose the concerns as well as the plans for the future. If we knew a date when the city was going to move, we could plan exactly what we wanted to do regarding the Boones Creek.”
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge agreed with Dykes that more cooperation is needed among officials, but said annexation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Because of commercial and industrial growth limits placed on the county by a state growth policy — which was originally intended to aid development in unincorporated areas -— the county depends on Johnson City businesses for 88 percent of its sales tax revenues and only 6 percent from the county, one of the widest margins in the state, Eldridge said.
“There are really no areas outside the city limits to support a sales tax-generating business,” he said. “If we want the opportunity for our sales tax to continue to grow, there’s only one place it can grow, and that’s in Johnson City.”
Eldridge said the recent fervor in the state Legislature regarding new annexation limits could actually hurt Washington County and the county school district, which gets a large portion of its funding from sales tax revenues.
The county mayor also agreed that some of the aging schools in the county need to be addressed but said the $110 million estimate given by the analysts to carry out the long-range plan, plus the share the county would be required to provide to the city, is too expensive.
“Combined with the debt we’ve already got, that’s a total of $317 million dollars, and that’s no doable,” he said. “But, we still have some very specific issues that need to be addressed.”