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Commissioners give Jonesborough school plan a thumbs up

Robert Houk • Sep 24, 2019 at 12:00 AM

After more than three years of debate and stalled votes, Washington County has finally adopted a strategy for building a new K-8 school and sports complex in Jonesborough.

County commissioners voted Monday to proceed with an agreement calling for Jonesborough to spend as much as $32 million to construct a school that the county would lease-to-own from the town.

The motion passed by a 13-0 vote with Commissioner Jim Wheeler, who serves as Jonesborough’s town attorney, abstaining. Commissioner Steve Light was absent from the meeting.

The resolution was by amended by Commissioner Freddie Malone to give Commission Chairman Greg Matherly the authority to call a special meeting of the board before Oct. 17 to consider the specifics of the 20-year lease agreement between the county and the town.

Wheeler said attorneys from the town and the county were still going over the details of the lease, which he said needed to be decided before Oct. 15 so the town could negotiate a favorable bond financing for the construction project.

Earlier, Jonesborough Chuck Vest told commissioners “urgency” was needed in proceeding with the project.

“Let’s keep this thing moving forward,” Vest said.

Following the vote, County Mayor Joe Grandy told commissioners it was key for Washington County to hammer out the fine points of the lease agreement. He said that’s why the county has hired the legal firm of Baker Donelson to review the legality of the agreement that will see it making annual lease payments of $2.5 million to eventually obtain ownership of the school building.

The town would retain ownership and control of the athletic facilities.

Grandy said the county must prepare to “defend ourselves” for any legal challenge that it might see as result of not sharing a portion of the construction financing for the new school with Johnson City Schools as required under state law for traditional school construction.

“We’ve never been told we are out of bonds, but we have told there are some risks,” Grandy said.

Commissioners heard from a number of parents, teachers and Jonesborough residents who expressed support for the Jonesborough school plan.

One was Kerrie Aistrop, who noted she had spoken many times on the need for a new Jonesborough school, and said she was grateful to see the unanimous votes supporting the plan from town leaders and the school board.

“We’ve come a long way,” Aistrop said.

Both the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the county’s Board of Education had earlier endorsed the idea of Jonesborough building the new school and sports complex on 48 acres near North Cherokee Street.

Commissioners approved a resolution Monday expressing “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.”

Before voting on the Jonesborough school plan, commissioners heard from Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett, who outlined a list of his school system’s own building needs. That list of $28.8 million in school capital needs includes $23 million alone to build a new Towne Acres Elementary School.

He said city schools also 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.

He said city schools have added 680 students to the K-12 curriculum since 2010.

“We think our student growth will remain steady, between 75 to 100 students a year,” Barnett said.

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