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Jonesborough officials unveil plan to build new school

Robert Houk • Updated Aug 16, 2019 at 4:27 PM

Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest unveiled a plan Thursday for the town to build a new K-8 school and a shared recreational complex as part of a lease-to-own deal with Washington County.

Vest and other town leaders made the proposal at a rare joint meeting with Washington County commissioners and members of the county’s Board of Education at the town’s McKinney Center.

The mayor outlined a plan calling for the town to buy a 48-acre tract of pasture land — located off North Cherokee Street/Tavern Hill Road behind the George P. Jaynes Justice Center — to build the new Jonesborough school and athletic complex with soccer, baseball and other playing fields.

“This would be a win for the county, a win for the town of Jonesborough and a win for the children of our community,” Vest said of the plan. “It’s time we all come together and get it done.”

The town would be responsible for building a new school similar to the newly opened $28 million Boones Creek pre-K-8 School, and leasing it and the recreational facilities to the county under a 20-year contract. At the end of the lease-to-own agreement, ownership of the school building — with a 900-student capacity — would be transferred to Washington County schools. The town would maintain the athletic fields.

“It’s mutually beneficial for the county and the town to do this,” Vest told the Press before Thursday’s meeting. “This will allow the county and Board of Education to focus on other school issues in South Central and Sulphur Springs.”

Vest said with the town of Jonesborough financing the construction of a new school and leasing it to Washington County, the county would be spared from borrowing funds for the construction project. It also means the county does not have to share a portion of that borrowing with Johnson City schools, as required by state law.

He said similar build/lease school plans have been tried in other parts of the state, but the Jonesborough proposal is the first of its kind in Northeast Tennessee.

“We have researched the legality, and we are 100 percent convinced we can do this,” Vest said.

Jim Wheeler, the town’s attorney and a county commissioner, said the plan is in keeping with the $10 million the county has already earmarked in its capital projects fund for the Jonesborough school. He said 7 pennies on the county’s annual property tax rate have been set aside for the new school.

That amount represents $2.637 million a year. The annual lease on the new school will be $2.362 million, which Wheeler said will leave $275,000 annually that can be spent on other capital projects.

“There will be no need for a property tax increase,” Wheeler said.

Once approved by Washington County officials, Vest said the school could be ready for students in two to three years. He said building the school will not represent a financial burden for the town, or negatively impact its bond rating.

“There’s no better time than now for Jonesborough to seek the financing,” Vest said.

The mayor said building a new school “makes good sense” for the town because it would attract “families with young children” to Jonesborough. Vest said it is vital that county commissioners and school board members settle quickly on a plan for a new school, noting that putting the issue off until as late as 2028 is not an option.

Town officials said the proposed site of the new school has room for growth, and provides a safer environment for students going to and from the school.

County commissioners voted unanimously in May to reject the so-called “Scheme 6” plan for a Jonesborough K-8 school, which had been endorsed by the Board of Education following nearly three years of debate and failed votes on previous plans.

That plan called for renovating Jonesborough Middle School and adding about 64,000 square feet to the building.

At the end of Thursday’s presentation, county commissioners and school board members said they were eager to pursue details of the Jonesborough Plan.

“We’ve all struggled with this,” Commissioner Kent Harris said. “It sounds great if it saves tax dollars.”

Board of Education member Mary Beth Dellinger said she was “very excited about the project.”

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