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John Thompson

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New $16M middle school for Carter Co.? Leaders make pitch to Budget Committee

June 10th, 2014 10:21 am by John Thompson

New $16M middle school for Carter Co.? Leaders make pitch to Budget Committee

The proposed facility would be built adjacent to the Watauga Industrial Park in Stoney Creek.

ELIZABETHTON — Director of Schools Kevin Ward and architect Tony Street made their pitch to the Budget Committee of the Carter County Commission on Monday, seeking the committee’s backing for a $16 million middle school to be built adjacent to the Watauga Industrial Park in Stoney Creek.

The major arguments for building a school were that the proposed site was a great location and the school would enable the school system to eliminate about 23 of the 50 modular classrooms, some that have been in service for nearly 40 years.

Street told the committee he has spent a lot of time searching for a suitable site for schools in Carter County. He said those sites are difficult to find.

The proposed site is only slightly more than 7 acres, but Street said a middle school could fit nicely. What was especially appealing about the location was that it was on the end of the Elizabethton sewer line built to service the industrial park. Ward said the use of the sewer would mean a $700,000 savings because a septic system would not have to be part of the school design.

“Location, location, location,” Ward said of the site, which the County Commission authorized the School Board to purchase for $200,000, using funds from the portion of the local option sales tax dedicated to school captial projects.

Ward said the location was also convenient for grade 5-8 students at Keenburg, Hunter and Unaka. The plans are to build a school for 600 students. Ward hoped the new building would also attract some Lynn Valley students who have been drawn to city schools.

Several committee members strongly endorsed the school proposal.

The committee members noted the final payment has been made on the bonds taken out to build Cloudland Elementary School. Along with the payoff on the animal shelter, Finance Director Ingrid Deloach said that freed up $900,000 a year dedicated to debt service.

Deloach said the problem is that in the past few years the County Commission has passed a budget that did not adequately fund all the county’s bond payments. She said the budgets have left the debt service underfunded by $1.8 million. That has allowed the reserves that had been built up in anticipation of building a new school in the future to be drawn down from nearly $8 million to $3 million.

With the Cloudland debt paid off, the $1.8 million deficit in the debt service fund balance has been shaved to a $900,000 deficit. She recommended that the property tax be redistributed to place a 12 cent increase in debt service, to balance the $900,000 deficit.

Deloach said the city schools would also have to receive a share of the funding in the same ratio of county and city students. She said a $16 million school project would require a bond of $22 million to provide the entire funding for both city and county. Deloach said that would require 15.5 cents of the property tax over 25 years. She said that would mean the funding for a new school with a stable debt service would require an increase of 27.5 cents in the property tax rate.

Several Budget Committee members spoke strongly in favor of a new school. Steve Chambers said that compared to some of the locations being considered for a school, the locaton “was a no brainer, we need to have a school out there.”

Chambers praised the school system maintenance for keeping the old buildings in service so long, but he said “we are looking at the future of our county.”

Committee member Nancy Brown said the county tax rate was already so high that “people can’t afford to pay a whole lot more.” She said in considering the budget for a new school, the county government should look inward. “It is going to take a whole lot of cutting to the bone,” Brown said.

Commission member Buford Peters is not a member of the committee, but attended the meeting as a representative of Stoney Creek. “We need a school. That is just the way it is.” He said Stoney Creek had been in line to get a new school back at the turn of the century, but the Roan Mountain flood led to an urgent need for a new Cloudland Elementary School.

Street said there was one other urgent but short term need for a Stoney Creek school. Street said the structure supporting the roof over the kitchen of Unaka Elementary School is failing. “I was concerned,” Street said. He had the structure shored up temporarily. He warned the committee that it is still “a very dangerous condition.” 

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