Johnson City Schools officials are begrudgingly accepting a school funding deal between Johnson City and Washington County that will provide $12.5 million for capital projects.
On Thursday, Johnson City commissioners approved an interlocal agreement with Washington County, which will provide $500,000 annually to the city over a 25-year period for capital projects in the city school district.
Those funds will be used to partially fund the design and construction of classroom spaces at Woodland, South Side and Lake Ridge Elementary Schools, as well as a new Towne Acres Elementary School.
“I’m really disappointed and frustrated with the position we find ourselves in with the county funding, but the city is our funding body, and I trust they’re going to make the best decisions they can to make sure that our students get their facilities,” board member Kathy Hall said Friday. “And it’s really their decision.”
Hall said city school officials “don’t know how much Towne Acres will cost,” but she is skeptical about the amount being enough.
“While $12.5 million sounds like a lot, it’s not enough to do that,” she said.
The deal came after months of city education officials voicing strong criticisms of funding mechanisms used to build a new Washington County school in Jonesborough.
In August 2019, Jonesborough announced plans to fund a new $32 million K-8 school the county will eventually own through a lease-purchase agreement. City education officials have since criticized this funding mechanism as a way to avoid sharing county funding with the district according to state law.
Since the plan was announced, city officials have explored legal options, and even considered suing the county over the funding mechanism that Johnson City Schools officials have considered a legal loophole.
“There is no doubt that we feel that the county is not playing fair with the bonding that they’re doing — that they’re using a loophole in a law to fund county schools and ignoring the needs of the city students who are also children of county taxpayers,” Hall said. “There is no doubt that this is not a fair deal for the schools of Johnson City. We pay the majority of the taxes that go to the county, but again, the city did what they thought was the best thing at this point.”
Beth Simpson, an incoming board member elected on Nov. 3, said “the interlocal agreement is not ideal, but it is a guaranteed outcome.”
In an October school board forum, she said concerns over Jonesborough’s funding mechanisms need to be addressed primarily at the state level.
“Although this is not the outcome many had hoped for, I have no reason to believe that the city will not continue to fully support our schools as it has done in the past,” she said.
Superintendent Steve Barnett said he understands the need for a new school in Jonesborough but hopes to see more solutions that work toward meeting both the city and county districts’ needs.
“We look forward to working with our two funding bodies, the County Commission and City Commission, as we approach some very important capital needs for the future growth of Johnson City Schools,” he said in an emailed statement.