Committee casts ugly vote on Jonesborough school plan

Robert Houk • Feb 8, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Members of Washington County’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee said it wasn’t pretty, but they voted Thursday on a resolution to send the Scheme 6 plan to build a new K-8 school in Jonesborough to the county’s Budget Committee.

“It may get even uglier by the time it gets to the full County Commission,” Committee Chairman Danny Edens said. “It (Scheme 6) may be impossible to accomplish, but we need to get it to the end of the process.”

The 4-1 vote did not include an actual endorsement of Scheme 6 from the HEW Committee, nor does it offer any recommendations on how to fund a project that Mitch Meredith, the county’s finance and administration director, told committee members would require the county to borrow at least $56 million to complete. That includes the amount state law requires the county to share with Johnson City schools.

The motion did, however, include the county’s purchase of a 15 acres adjacent to the Jonesborough Elementary School that Washington County school officials have said is key to Scheme 6.

Edens said moving Scheme 6 to the Budget Committee — even without a recommendation on how to fund it — was the right thing to do.

“If we continue to delay it in this committee, we accomplish nothing for students, parents or taxpayers,” Edens said.

Commissioner Jodi Jones, who cast the lone vote against moving Scheme 6 to the Budget Committee, said that while she understands the “frustration” her colleagues, as well as parents and school officials, were feeling about the delays, she prefers the HEW committee make a recommendation on the merits of the school plan and how it should be funded.

“It feels like a very shiny thing to move it on, but that’s not the way the committee process should work,” she said.

The HEW committee also voted 4-1 (with Jones again voting “no”) on Thursday to send a separate resolution asking the county to appropriate funding to buy the 15-acre tract from Jonesborough surveyor Joe McCoy The purchase of the tract has been in limbo while attorneys work to lift restrictions Lowe’s Home Improvement had attached to the sale of remaining property after it purchased its land from McCoy for its Jonesborough store more than a decade ago.

Washington County Attorney Thomas J. Seeley III said attorneys with Lowe’s told him this week “there was room for negotiation” when it came to dropping the restrictions for the new school. He said Lowe’s simply wants to prevent a competitor from purchasing the tract.

The commission authorized the county mayor in January 2017 to buy the property for $777,900. McCoy said Thursday the county’s purchase option on the property, which has been owned by his family for more than 120 years, has been extended six times.

He said he recently talked to to attorneys for Lowe’s, who told him the company would gladly remove all its restrictions as long as the property is used for school purposes.

McCoy said he was encouraged by the HEW committee’s vote.

“It’s the first time they have voted to get the ball rolling,” he said.

School officials say the McCoy property is key to the Scheme 6 plan approved by the Board of Education in October, which calls for renovating the current Jonesborough Middle School and adding about 64,000 square feet to the building. The land would be used to create a new road, and a bus loading and unloading zone.

McCoy said he would hold “no hard feelings” toward county or school officials if they change their minds on the purchase of his property.

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