Board backs Jonesborough K-8 school plan

Robert Houk • Aug 30, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The Washington County Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to enter into an agreement with the town of Jonesborough to build a new K-8 school to be leased by the county.

Board member Chad Fleenor made the motion to approve the deal, which was met by cheers from many of the parents and Jonesborough residents in the audience who have pushed to build a new school for more than three years.

One was parent Kerrie Aistrop, who said the board’s vote made up for years of frustration and disappointment.

“I never thought this day would come,” Aistrop said. “This will benefit our entire school community.”

Fleenor’s motion included an amendment asking that the deal not include the sale of the Asbury School property.  

Jonesborough leaders voted unanimously last week for the town to build a new K-8 school on a 48-acre tract it will purchase off North Cherokee Street — just north of the George Jaynes Justice Center. The town would enter into a lease-to-own agreement with Washington County, which would make annual payments of $2.362 million as part of a 20-year deal.

Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest said the town should be able to build a new K-8 that “is superior” to the $28 million pre-K-8 school that opened earlier this month in Boones Creek.

“This is a win for all parties,” Vest told board members, noting it would eventually represent a $40 million “financial victory” for the county.

The mayor said the new school would not be “designed in a vacuum,” and promised the design committee would rely heavily on input from the Board of Education. He said the board’s approval could put the project in the hands of the County Commission for a vote by the end of September.

The school plan is expected to be heard next in the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee.

“We believe the time is right,” Vest said. 

School Board Chairman Keith Ervin said that while there wasn’t “a person sitting at this table tonight” who did not want a new school in Jonesborough, he and board members wanted answers to key questions. Board member Phillip McLain agreed, and said “the devil is in the details.”

He said issues involving the lease for the school and the athletic complex, and who bears liability for damages to the athletic facilities during non-school-related events, needed to be resolved. McLain also said he was concerned with maintaining the security of the new school grounds during athletic events.

“Take care of the details and everything else will take care of of itself,” McLain said.

McLain later asked that a vote on the matter be delayed until Thursday’s regular board meeting in deference to board member Mitch Meredith, who was absent due to a death in his family. Meredith’s mother, former County Commissioner Martha Nan Meredith, died earlier in the day.

Board member Mary Beth Dellinger said the Jonesborough school plan requires that she and her colleagues “think outside of the box.” Dellinger also said she was “looking forward” to serving on the design team for the new school. 

The Jonesborough plan also calls for the county school board to:

• Sell the front of the properties at Jonesborough Elementary and Middle schools to a “tax-paying individual or entity.”

• Transfer to the town the track area of the middle school for a public park facility.

• Sell the Midway School property to a “tax-paying individual or entity,” with the proceeds going to the county’s capital improvement fund.

Johnson City Board of Education members voiced concern at their meeting earlier this week about how the plan would impact city capital projects.

The town would completely finance the school building project, which is expected to cost between $18 million and $32 million. That means the county would not be required to borrow money for the project.

State law requires county governments to share a portion of its borrowing for such education projects with all municipal schools systems that are located in the same county.

County officials said $10 million has been earmarked in the county’s capital projects fund for the Jonesborough school project that can be applied to making the annual lease payments.