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School board districts remain unsettled matter

Gary B. Gray • Feb 18, 2017 at 11:34 PM

Legislation that would end the Washington County Commission’s authority to delineate school districts and hand the task over to the Board of Education has drawn criticism, but it also has revealed what some claim is a purposeful shift in power.

State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-7th, filed HB 0964 on Feb. 2. State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-3rd, filed a companion bill in the Senate Feb. 9. The bill has been assigned to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee and the Senate Education Committee. Crowe is a member of the latter.

Hill told the Johnson City Press last week that board members approached him and that they were “very unhappy with the County Commission redrawing the district lines.” Hill said he was surprised the Board of Education was not currently responsible for that duty and that he considered their request a reasonable one.

County Mayor Dan Eldridge reacted to the move by saying he did not see how a change in state law would benefit students. He also said he was disappointed that school board members’ re-election concerns had become a legislative priority.

“I don’t know if this has legs,” said Jack Leonard, Board of Education chair. “What gets me is they can, by law, change these districts, and I voiced my concern when they (commissioners) voted. I felt there was too much representation in the northern part of the county, and I asked commissioners to leave the lines as they were until the 2020 census.”

The County Commission approved the redrawn school districts in November. Washington County has nine board members. Three members represent each of the county’s three districts.

“We had it where District 1 covered the David Crockett (high school) community, District 3 fed into the Boone community and District 2 was neutral, which helped even out the board” Leonard said.

He said the redo places six board members in districts 2 and 3, which includes the Gray community, the northwestern part of Johnson City and Fall Branch, with just three representing the David Crockett community.

“They (Reapportionment Committee) held meetings in the morning and at other times when board members could not attend,” Leonard said. “I voiced my concerns, but they went ahead.”

Commissioner and Reapportionment Committee member Mark Larkey said the map was created in a transparent manner and was based solely on the best interest of Washington County residents.

“To see Representative Hill and a couple of school board members trying to circumvent the work that was performed from January 2015 to November of 2016 is very suspect and disappointing,” Larkey said. “This new school board map was strongly supported by the committee and the County Commission, which was evidenced by a unanimous vote in committee in June, and a 17-4 vote by the County Commission with four absent that I feel strongly would have voted yes in November of 2016.”

The creation of the new county commission (15 districts and 15 members), new school board and constable district maps were led by the redistricting and special projects supervisor for the Office of Local Government in the Tennessee Comptrollers Office.

The population deviation related to the old school board map was 8 percent versus .3 percent with the new map.

“The new school board map mirrors the commission districts, which provides identical voting precincts,” Larkey said. “And, if the school district maps were not revised to provide this consistency the Election Commission would be forced to increase the number of precincts, which would be more costly to taxpayers.”

Current District 1 board member Clarence Mabe applauded the reapportionment and said it will equalize representation, but the change puts him in an awkward position.

“When they redrew the lines, it put me in District 2,” he said. “The election of board members is staggered, and the election for District 1 comes up in about 18 months. Since I’m no longer in that district, I would have to wait two years beyond that election to run for a District 2 spot.

“The south side has had six representatives for 30 years. How long do you think it took the board to vote for a new Jonesborough school? Minutes. The vote was 9-0. But everyone knew the six would vote for it. Some board members are now saying the Boone area will have all the advantage, but I think the committee and the County Commission did a great job.”

Washington County Schools is comprised of 16 schools serving pre-K through grade 12 with more than 9,000 students and 580 teachers.

Email Gary Gray at [email protected]. Like Gary B. Gray on Facebook at www.facebook.com/garybgrayjcp. Follow him on Twitter @ggrayjcpress.

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