School funding deal between county and city on the horizon

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Feb 7, 2020 at 10:28 PM

City and county officials may be closer to avoiding a possible legal battle over school funding concerns.

The Washington County Health, Education and Welfare Committee approved an inter-local agreement Thursday to allocate $500,000 annually over 25 years to help cover Johnson City Schools’ building needs.

The deal was the result of a resolution passed by the Washington County Commission in October instructing County Mayor Joe Grandy to negotiate an agreement with Johnson City. The deal still needs to pass through the county’s Budget Committee on Wednesday. From there, it will go to county commissioners and Johnson City commissioners for approval.

That resolution came after county commissioners approved a lease-purchase deal with Jonesborough in August to build a new $32.75 million K-8 county school and sports complex.

Tennessee law requires school districts within Washington County to share all borrowed county capital spending for schools, but since the new Jonesborough school funding plan comes through the town, there would be no bonds to share between the two districts under the plan.

Johnson City education officials originally hoped the agreement would include a provision in which the county agreed not to use the same funding mechanisms moving forward.

That provision was not included, to the dismay of Johnson City Board of Education members, with Board Member Jonathan Kinnick being one of the agreement’s most outspoken opponents.

Still, Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett said the money will help fund several capital project needs related to enrollment growth and the district’s recent reconfiguration plan.

“We appreciate the work being done by the city and county commissions to provide funding as Johnson City Schools continues to grow and space becomes limited at Indian Trail and our elementary schools. With our Board of Education’s plan to move fifth-graders back to the elementary schools, this proposed funding will help us accomplish our goals,” Barnett said in an emailed statement to the Press.

Where that money goes is up to the city commission, according to Barnett.

“Ultimately, if this plan is accepted by the county and city commissions, how the money is used will be a decision made by the city commission. The city is currently funding projects at Indian Trail and classroom additions at South Side, Lake Ridge and Woodland at a cost of between $10 to $12 million,” Barnett said. “Moving fifth grade back to the elementary schools will provide adequate space for future growth at our two middle schools, as Indian Trail is currently overcapacity.”

Chairman Tim Belisle said he had some mixed feelings about the agreement as a taxpayer and board member.

“While I am always pleased when Johnson City Schools receives much-needed capital infusion, I am disappointed that the agreement does not include the return of more capital money to Johnson City and that it does not include assurances by the county that it will not utilize the capital funding loopholes in the future to avoid returning to Johnson City Schools capital funds collected from Johnson City taxpayers,” Belisle said.

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