‘Our’ schools, not ‘their’

Johnson City Press • Nov 7, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Trust seems to be the operative word between Washington County and Johnson City these days.

It’s unusual to see how suddenly accommodating city officials have become regarding the county’s recent “let city kids eat cake” approach to sharing school tax revenue collected from all county taxpayers, most of which originates from the city limits.

Even the county’s most vocal critic, Johnson City Board of Education Chairman Tim Belisle, seems optimistic that negotiations will result in least some funding for city school projects, given the comments he made in Monday’s school board meeting.

We advocated in September for such negotiations in lieu of exhaustive and expensive litigation. So we are cautiously upbeat about the prospects of a deal treating city families as more than second-class residents of the county.

Since levying a 40-cent tax increase on all property owners in the county in 2016, the County Commission has used an unjustifiable loophole in state law to largely shut Johnson City schools out of capital projects funding normally shared between systems on a per-pupil basis. The county took advantage of that loophole when it issued bonds for only a portion of the $28 million used to build the recently completed Boones Creek School. The city received $8 million from county bonds, much less than it would have had the county borrowed the full amount.

And on Oct. 28, the County Commission took yet another end-run around apportionment by agreeing to allow Jonesborough to issue bonds for a county school, build it and lease it to the county. The town essentially is a flow-through agent for county taxes.

That same night, though, commissioners authorized County Mayor Joe Grandy to negotiate “with the city of Johnson City and the local education agency operating within that municipality to identify the terms that would resolve dispute over the interpretation of the Jonesborough proposal.”

What we don’t see in that language is a direct promise of funding or talk of equitable distribution. For Johnson City, this situation comes down to “trust but verify.”

For his part, Grandy seems to recognize that the county has to iron out some sort of agreement with Johnson City. He knows the lease deal is new legal territory in Tennessee.

We’ve noticed that county officials keep using the word “their” when referring to the Johnson City district’s needs. What seems lost here is that Washington County funds not one but two school systems, both serving Washington County families. This is an “our” situation, not a “their.” These are your families, Joe.

All county officials would do well to embrace that thought in these negotiations, as should commissioners when Johnson City comes calling for help with a new Towne Acres Elementary School project.

We’ll also repeat our call for the Tennessee General Assembly to close all flaws in the law so that all residents in a county are treated equitably; otherwise, counties could indefinitely leave their urban residents in the lurch.

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