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County school board members push to be included in school site negotiations

Nathan Baker • Sep 1, 2016 at 10:35 PM

Washington County school board member Annette Buchanan launched a surprise inquest Thursday into the negotiation of a purchase agreement for the land intended for a new Boones Creek school.

Armed with a 1999 state attorney general’s opinion stating boards of education hold the power to negotiate school construction contracts, Buchanan asked why members weren’t part of a process that ended Thursday with county Mayor Dan Eldridge, district Director Kimber Halliburton and property owner Alex Williams signing a contract for up to 56 acres on Boones Creek Road for a price not to exceed $1.9 million.

“I appreciate the initiative that the mayor and the county commission has taken,” she said, handing out printed copies of the opinion to her fellow board members. “But that is our job, we’re supposed to be the ones negotiating for this land.”

Buchanan and other board members again voiced concerns aired during previous votes to approve the site at Highland Church and Boones Creek roads. Worried in part that the county mayor and commissioners were inserting themselves into the site selection process, board members voted three separate times to reject the land before finally winning a 5-4 majority.

“We’re supposed to do everything: choose the site, puchase the land, it’s up to us to negoitate, to hire the architect, we select the contractor; the only thing they’re supposed to do is fund it,” Phillip McLain said to former board chair Todd Ganger. “You need to do some reading.”

Buchanan and McLain voted against the Williams property at each chance. So too did Keith Ervin and Jack Leonard, who were chosen as the new board vice chair and chair, respectively, in the regular reorganization following August’s elections.

County attorney Tom Seeley explained to the board that the attorney general’s opinion handed out dealt with construction contracts, not land purchase agreements, and said the school board would still have final say on the site plan and the construction contract.

Halliburton, who took her district leadership position in July, said board members should have come to her first with their questions.

“I’m very concerned at this juncture,” she said. “We made so much progress; I’m deeply concerned about this. No one informed me that this was even going to be brought about. It’s not on the agenda, and our public didn’t know this would even be talked about. I’m very concerned.”

After the discussion concluded, Ganger, who voted each time to approve the Williams property, said he was disappointed by the infighting among board members.

“This bothers me to be honest, it’s more of same we've done in past,” he said. “The director should have known about this. As chair, it should have been brought to me.

“I wish we would stop doing that stuff. At least present things like that to director, so she can comment on it.”

After the school board approved the site on Aug. 10, the county commission on Aug. 22 authorized Eldridge to enter negotiations to acquire between 20 to 56 acres where a new 1,100-student Boones Creek school will be built.

Board members wondered why the acreage range dipped as low as 20 acres, when hired architect Tony Street told them multiple times the new school would need at least 50 acres. Halliburton and Seeley explained that the minimum area approved gives the board some leeway if less than 56 acres were needed, and allows for some negotiating leverage.

Ervin said the school board should be part of all school site decisions and processes in the future.

“It sounds like the mayor is doing this instead of us,” he said. “Somebody needs to inform the board, or we're going to run with a committee, to do it, to do the site negotiating.”

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