City school board chairman says funding deal with county would be 'capitulation'

Brandon Paykamian • Feb 26, 2020 at 6:20 PM

Johnson City school board members Wednesday stopped short of directly asking the City Commission to pursue legal action against Washington County over school funding issues, but voiced unified opposition to a $12.5 million deal on the table.

The Board of Education held a special called meeting at Towne Acres Elementary School to discuss capital project funding after a deal proposed between Washington County and Johnson City.

On Monday, Washington County commissioners approved a $12.5 million deal to allocate $500,000 annually over 25 years for Johnson City’s school facility needs.

The entire board disapproved of the agreement because of current funding needs, which nearly triple the amount offered. To the displeasure of the board, City Manager Pete Peterson told them Johnson City commissioners will consider the deal at its agenda meeting Monday and then at its regular meeting Thursday next week.

All of the city’s school board members vocally opposed agreeing. Chairman Tim Belisle considered the deal “capitulation.”

“The board, very clearly, is opposed to the city entering into that agreement because the city schools will wind up receiving significantly less than they are entitled to as a result of the project being done with Jonesborough,” Belisle said.

Tennessee law requires school districts within Washington County to share all county tax revenue for schools, but city officials say there would be no bonds to share between the two districts under Jonesborough’s current funding plan to use a lease agreement for a new K-8 school and sports complex estimated to cost $32 million.

The county’s recently-proposed deal came after Johnson City education officials condemned that funding mechanism, which they say could impede their ability to fund projects. City school officials have also voiced their opposition to the Jonesborough plan because city residents pay more than half of the county’s taxes despite not being able to split funds.

County leaders were concerned Johnson City might pursue legal action against the county for funds it would typically share. Legal action by the city or its school board related to the Jonesborough school project is prohibited under the terms of the inter-local agreement.

Johnson City Schools’ recent reconfiguration plan to create two new middle schools out of Liberty Bell Middle School and Indian Trail Intermediate School for grades 6-8 will require about $30 million when fifth-graders go back to elementary facilities. Alterations to Lake Ridge, South Side and Woodland Elementary schools, as well as a new Towne Acres Elementary School, will be necessary to accommodate more students, according to city school officials.

Board Member Jonathan Kinnick emphasized the deal proposed by county officials would not cover Johnson City’s needs. He proposed a resolution explicitly expressing the board’s opposition to the deal, which he called a “one-sided agreement.”

Kinnick also said the board should express its support for legal action by the city against the county for what it sees as unfair funding mechanisms.

“Washington County started this; they’ve made all the decisions. Now we have to make a decision. Our decision should be to reject this agreement and stand up for our city taxpayers and go after the money we need to rebuild Towne Acres...” Kinnick said, to which Board Member Michelle Treece immediately agreed.

While all board members — as well as Peterson and the small group of parents present — voiced their disapproval of the deal, Board Member Kathy Hall advised the board to wait until next week after meeting with city officials to go forward with a resolution like Kinnick’s.

Kinnick’s formal motion was rejected with Hall, Belisle and Board Members Tom Hager and Robert Williams voting “no.”

“We’ve not taken any formal vote on that, but there are individual board members who believe that would be an appropriate course of conduct for the city to undertake,” Belisle said following the meeting. “We wanted to have an opportunity to hear what the county had done and then decide how we wanted to proceed from this point.

“The board’s wishes are that we will have this conversation with the city commission to learn better what their position is, what their intent is and how they are going to meet the needs of Johnson City Schools’ capital requirements if this agreement is entered into and the schools receive insufficient amounts back from the county as a result of the agreement.”

Belisle and Michelle Treece told Peterson they hope the city will do whatever it can to help meet the district’s needs if the deal goes through.

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