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Scheme 6 school plan rejected by County Commission

Robert Houk • May 21, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Washington County commissioners were unanimous Monday in voting down a scheme to build a Jonesborough K-8 school.

“We’ve had a good conversation, but I don’t think anything will be settled tonight,” Commissioner Bryan Davenport said before joining 12 of his colleagues in voting “no” on the plan. Two commissioners were absent from the meeting.

Commissioner Mike Ford questioned the wisdom of proceeding with Scheme 6 before determining how much the Jonesborough project would add to the county’s debt load. He said the commission has been like a dog “chasing its tail” on a project that has been discussed for three years.

“We need to get our heads together before we vote on this tonight,” Ford said.

Commissioner Phil Carriger said he agreed with Ford.

“I’m being asked to vote for something I don’t know how much it will cost, and how we are going to pay for it,” he said

The county’s Board of Education approved the Scheme 6 plan in October, which calls for renovating Jonesborough Middle School and adding about 64,000 square feet to the building.

Board of Education Chairman Keith Ervin told commissioners his board was told Scheme 6 was within budget when it approved the plan. He said it is now up to commissioners to let the board know what “the dollar figure is” for the K-8 school.

Commissioner Gary McAllister suggested a task force be formed of commissioners and school board members to “hammer out” a compromise on the Jonesborough school. Commissioner Jodi Jones told her colleagues “the current process” was not working.

Both commissioners and members of the school board wrestled with the Scheme 6 plan at separate meetings Monday night. The school board met in a called meeting an hour before the commission’s regular monthly meeting to discuss funding options for the Jonesborough school.

Ervin told his colleagues he called the meeting to obtain their permission to tell commissioners the board would not break ground on the new Jonesborough K-8 project until March 2020.

Ervin said the delay would give the county additional time to generate property tax dollars to help pay for the project. He said the same concept has enabled the county to reduce the amount it has borrowed for the new Boones Creek K-12.

“Why can’t we build Jonesborough like we did Boones Creek?,” he asked school board members. “There’s got to be some extra pennies (on the property tax rate) after Boones Creek is completed.”

Board member Jason Day told Ervin he “wouldn’t say anything” on how the commission should fund the project.

“It’s up to them to tell us what we’ve got to spend, then we can come back and regroup,” he said.

The school board adjourned its meeting after taking no action on Ervin’s request.

Later, commissioners debated a resolution noting a 7-cent property tax increase might be needed to fund borrowing for a $20.7 million Jonesborough K-8 school under Scheme 6. The county’s Budget Committee voted earlier this month to send the Scheme 6 resolution to the full commission, but declined to make a recommendation on how to fund the plan.

The committee also voted to defer action on the long-delayed purchase of the 15-acre McCoy property adjacent to Jonesborough Elementary School until a decision is made on Scheme 6.

Ford and and Commissioner Kent Harris both said Monday they wanted to see an updated appraisal on the value of the McCoy property.

Commissioners met April 1 in a workshop to discuss funding options for the Jonesborough K-8. Mitch Meredith, the county’s director of finance and administration, told commissioners at that time Washington County would need to borrow at least $57 million to fund the Jonesborough K-8 and other key school capital projects.

Meredith, who is also a school board member, said borrowing that amount would require the county to move 13 pennies of the county’s $2.38 property tax rate from capital projects to debt service. He said those funds would join 5 cents allocated by the commission in 2016 for improvements to Jonesborough elementary and middle schools.

He repeated that statement on Monday, and told commissioners that moving existing pennies on the tax rate for Scheme 6 would “completely eradicate” the county’s capital projects fund.

“That money has got to come from somewhere,” Commissioner Jim Wheeler told his colleagues.

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