County commissioners to decide on new K-8 school deal

Robert Houk • Sep 22, 2019 at 6:32 PM

Washington County commissioners will be asked tonight to decide if they support a first-of-its-kind agreement with the town of Jonesborough to construct a new K-8 school for the county.

Commissioners are also scheduled to hear from Steve Barnett, the superintendent of Johnson City Schools, who will outline his system’s own building needs.

“Our goal is to inform commissioners and the community of the capital needs of Johnson City Schools,” Barnett said Friday. “These needs became more evident as we looked toward transitioning to two 5-8 middle schools.”

Earlier this month, both the county’s Health, Education and Welfare and Budget committees endorsed the idea of Jonesborough spending as much as $32 million to build a new school and sports complex on 48 acres near North Cherokee Street.

Details are still being hammered out on a 20-year lease-to-own deal that will see Washington County eventually obtain ownership of the school building and the town getting control of the athletic facilities.

The concept has been approved by town leaders and the Washington County Board of Education.

Commissioners are being asked to vote on a resolution in “support of the town of Jonesborough’s proposal for a lease-purchase arrangement, authorizing due diligence, risk and financial assessment, and investigation and negotiation of an inter-local agreement and related leases.”

County Mayor Joe Grandy has also asked that $250,000 be added to the resolution to cover design work that he said will keep the Jonesborough school project moving forward while the legal details of the lease agreement between the town and the county are being worked out.

Washington County has hired the Baker-Donelson law firm to research the legality of its role in the proposed financing and lease for the school.

“They have a team working on it, and they believe we can move forward,” Grandy told the Budget Committee on Sept. 11.

Mitch Meredith, the county’s director of finance and administration, has told commissioners the county has money available in its capital projects fund to cover the projected $2.5 million annual lease for the new school.

Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said Friday he expects “a large number” of county residents will ask to speak on the Jonesborough school project at the monthly meeting. He said judging by the emails he has received, most support the lease-to-own deal.

Barnett is also scheduled to speak to commissioners on developing a capital funding plan to meet the needs of both Washington County and Johnson City schools.

Barnett told the Press Friday he believes “it is imperative that we meet the needs of all students in Washington County,” including the 48% who attend Johnson City schools.

“As we delved into the comparability study for two middle schools, we did not anticipate the enrollment growth that we have experienced,” Barnett said. “If this trend continues, which we believe it will, we will need to add an additional elementary school in the next 6-10 years.”

Included in Johnson City’s list of $28.8 million in school capital needs is $23 million for a new Towne Acres Elementary School. Barnett said the system needs to add eight classrooms to Lake Ridge Elementary School, four new classrooms at South Side Elementary School and an additional four classrooms at Woodland Elementary School.

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