Reject the county’s $12.5M offer

Johnson City Press • Mar 5, 2020 at 8:00 AM

The Johnson City Commission has a handful of choices tonight as it considers Washington County’s $12.5 million offer to settle the school construction funding dispute: accept it, go back to the negotiating table or file suit.

The first option is no option at all. Johnson City Board of Education Chairman Tim Belisle called it capitulation. We’d call it giving away the store.

On Sept. 29, we advocated for negotiations between the two governments to settle the city’s complaint as opposed to litigation. Those negotiations appear to have been a one-sided debacle, and it’s clear that a tougher stance from the city is in order.

The dispute resulted from a legally questionable lease-purchase deal the County Commission signed with the town of Jonesborough to construct a new $32.75 million K-8 county school and sports complex. That plan guaranteed the city no money that would typically be shared if the county, rather than Jonesborough, issued bonds for the project. School districts within the same county share such bond proceeds on a per-pupil basis.

Johnson City would stand to receive at least twice the amount the county is offering were the county not attempting this unscrupulous end run around its obligations to county residents who live in the city. The city district has its own construction needs, not the least of which is replacing half-century-old Towne Acres Elementary School.

To be clear, neither city school board members nor this newspaper has dismissed Jonesborough’s need for a new school. It’s a must.

Any funding plan that uses money generated countywide for schools, however, must be distributed fairly.

The Jonesborough plan hinges on conflicting statutes in state law, one of which has been used with court support to allow counties to build cash slush funds to fund projects without sharing. Today we repeat our call for the state Legislature to close that loophole, ending the “unfair but legal” argument former County Mayor Dan Eldridge used against the city.

While the cash method is legal for now, the question at hand is whether the lease agreement to pay Jonesborough’s bonds is a mere shell game — the equivalent of county-issued bonds with no share for the city. The Johnson City Board of Education thinks it is. We agree. The city should reject the proposal and its provision that the city would never sue over the lease deal.

If further negotiations seem out of reach, the city — or one or more of its citizens — should indeed pursue a litigious remedy. The risk, of course, is that the courts would side with the County Commission and the town of Jonesborough, potentially leaving the city with nothing to argue for equitable funding.

Contrary to a leading public statement City Staff Attorney Sunny Sandos issued Wednesday before the City Commission has the chance to act, it’s a risk the city should take — unless further talks can be achieved. Accepting this so-called deal would not only shortchange county taxpayers and children who live in Johnson City by millions, it would set a dangerous precedent.

Washington County would have no reason to stop such shenanigans in the future, and that truly would be a destructive path.

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