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Johnson City hears skepticism for $12.5M funding deal; will vote next week

David Floyd • Updated Mar 6, 2020 at 10:11 AM

With commenters stressing that the Johnson City school system has pressing capital needs, Johnson City commissioners heard wariness and opposition from parents and community members to a $12.5 million funding agreement with Washington County.

During the commission’s meeting on Thursday night, Joe Crabtree, president of the Johnson City Education Association and a teacher at Liberty Bell Middle School, urged commissioners to decline the agreement.

“It’s going to set the tone that it’s OK to do what the county is doing to us,” he said, noting that city taxpayers contribute significantly to the county’s revenues. “The city’s not getting a lot in return.”

After the Washington County Commission approved the deal in February, the City Commission plans to hold a called meeting at 4:30 p.m. March 12 to vote on the agreement, which would allow the city to receive funding that would not be readily available through the mechanism the county plans on using to build a new school in Jonesborough.

Along with members of the school board, the commissioners met in executive session for about an hour on Thursday so officials could discuss the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a lawsuit against the county over the approach it’s using to fund construction of a new $32.75 million K-8 school and recreational facility in Jonesborough.

That funding method, which would involve Jonesborough paying for the construction of the school and recouping the cost through a lease-to-own agreement with Washington County, does not guarantee the city school system the capital funding it would normally receive if the county borrowed money for the Jonesborough project, which has been estimated to be about $30 million.

City Manager Pete Peterson noted that the deal, which would allocate $500,000 annually to the city over 25 years, will at least guarantee Johnson City some funding.

“We can work out this agreement, and we get $12.5 million,” he said. “We can decline this agreement and/or sue the county, and we’ll get zero.”

He noted that with the county’s capital facility fund, Washington County could hypothetically delay the construction of the Jonesborough school project long enough accumulate the cash for the project, a route that would also not obligate that funding be shared with the city.

He pointed out that the city would have a sizable legal expense if it pursued legal action, and noted that city school systems in Tennessee are outnumbered by county school systems in the state.

“The recommendation of approval of this agreement is based on those facts of law and those political realities of we’re in a minority position in this bargaining session, and if you can get something versus nothing that’s a whole lot better deal for everybody,” Peterson said.

If it won a lawsuit, Staff Attorney Sunny Sandos said the novel funding mechanism being pursued by the county would be rendered invalid. If it lost, the city would be left with legal fees and the mechanism could be difficult to challenge in the future.

Sandos noted that the agreement commissioners will be considering next week is not the agreement that the county posted for public notice, which she said could mean the county will have to vote on the agreement again.

Leading up to Thursday’s meeting, the $12.5 million agreement has drawn criticism from members of the city school board and teacher’s union, who have said the deal wouldn’t provide enough money to meet the city’s school capital needs, including the estimated $23 million to build a new Towne Acres Elementary School.

Parents of students at the school were adamant that the construction project at Towne Acres needed to be done as soon as possible.

Jennifer Hollinger, a parent with kids in the Johnson City school system, said Towne Acres needs a new school now. She’s had kids attending the school for about six years.

“In the state, we rank as one of the top schools, and yet we have one of the most inferior schools that exist,” Hollinger said. “We definitely have the most inferior school when you look at our facility in all of Johnson City. It’s not safe, it’s not healthy.”

Hollinger said Towne Acres also has a mildew and mold problem and that her children’s hair, backpack and clothes smell like it when they come home.

“We are not getting our needs at Towne Acres,” she said. “This $12.5 million nowhere near comes close to meeting our needs. I would rather see you saying no to this agreement. I don’t think we should sue, but I would rather see a tax increase in the city knowing that the money is going to stay in the city and we’re going to use it for our needs.”

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said commissioners will evaluate the city’s options to see whether consequences of a lawsuit outweigh the benefits of the deal.

“For me personally, for someone who served on the school board, who was a teacher, who has grandchildren in the school system right now, we have a big responsibility in our school systems to look after all of our students,” she said.

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