Eldridge: Washington County school board is dysfunctional, hindering progress of school system with Jonesborough school project uncertainty

Zach Vance • Updated Nov 16, 2017 at 7:50 AM

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge isn’t pulling punches over the Board of Education’s recent uncertainty about what to do with Jonesborough Elementary School.

Although Eldridge is already authorized by the County Commission to borrow funds to renovate Jonesborough Elementary and build a rigorous academic magnet school in Jonesborough, the mayor said he was not going to pull the trigger as long as “we have a school board that is so dysfunctional.” 

“Quite frankly, we need our school board to get their act together and get on the same page with everybody else in trying to make this school system better,” Eldridge said, referencing a recent push to build a new Jonesborough school rather than renovate the saucer-shaped elementary school and build the academic magnet school in the current middle school.

County leaders are scrambling to finance the $20.7 million project before the end of year, largely due to the Republican tax reform bill under consideration in Congress.

“The challenges that this tax reform legislation is creating for us is huge. It is absolutely going to run up the borrowing cost for the county,” Eldridge said. “We will pay a minimum of 50 to 70 basis points (equal to .5 percent and .7 percent) more than we were expecting to pay as a result of (the legislation). The only way we could avoid that is to close on this borrowing before Dec. 31.”

Even if the GOP’s tax plan goes into effect after Jan 1, Eldridge said it would still affect any borrowing incurred in 2018.

To further compound matters, the school board’s architect, Tony Street, has struggled to fit the Jonesborough renovation project and magnet school within the allotted budget. Eldridge estimated it was coming in $8 million over what he had been authorized to borrow.

“Not only do we have a school board confused about what they want to build, we've got their architect that is really struggling to get this project designed within the money that is available,” the mayor said. 

In October, Jonesborough community members began asking the county to build a new school rather than renovate the the old open floor plan facility.

“People in my district have been contacting me,” Jonesborough school board representative Mary Beth Dellinger said last month. “They are concerned about the lack of equity and planning for the students in Jonesborough versus the students in Boones Creek. It’s difficult for parents in Jonesborough to understand why Boones Creek is getting a new $25 million facility when enrollment at Jonesborough is around 100 more students.”

At its Nov. 9 meeting, three parents addressed the school board about “tearing down the round,” and Dellinger concurred, stating she’d do whatever it took to get a new school.

If the school board decides to pursue a new school, Budget Committee Chairman Joe Grandy called it “virtually impossible” to draw up plans for a new school, reauthorize the borrowing and find a contractor before Jan. 1.

“I don't think I overstated it when I used the term dysfunctional because that's what our school board has devolved into, and quite frankly, all its doing is accomplishing two things: No. 1, it's hindering the progress of our school system and educating these kids. No. 2, it's about to cost our taxpayers more money. Neither of those are acceptable,” the mayor said.

It’s possible the school board will call for a delay on the magnet school to free up about $5 million that could be used for a new school. County Finance Director Mitch Meredith said that course of action would require action by the full commission.

If the school board chooses to continue on with the Jonesborough renovation plan, Eldridge is authorized to pull those funds out at anytime, but the clock is ticking.

The Washington County Board of Education has invited Eldridge and Meredith to a special called workshop Monday at 6 p.m. to discuss the details related to available funding for a new Jonesborough school.

Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article stated that Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton had been opposed to a delay in the magnet school development. Halliburton called the Press Thursday to say that was not the case.

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