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'Tear down the round' proposal moves ahead to committee with $5 million shortfall

Zach Vance • Updated Jan 3, 2018 at 11:29 PM

Despite its plan being more than $5 million out of balance, the Washington County Board of Education remained steadfast in its request to ‘tear down the round’ and build a brand-new Jonesborough K-8 school.

Wednesday night, the school board met jointly with the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee and some Budget Committee members to discuss whether enough funding exists to actually make the plan feasible.

That question still remains unanswered.

Once again, architect Tony Street provided a brief overview of the $23.21 million project, which includes indefinitely delaying the creation of a magnet school and replacing the circular facility with a new elementary school.

Currently, the County Commission has approved just over $17 million to fund the Jonesborough school project. Mayor Dan Eldridge and Finance Director Mitch Meredith were not present at Wednesday’s meeting to answer questions related to possible funding alternatives.

With parents in the audience holding signs supporting her stance, school board member Mary Beth Dellinger asked multiple times whether the County Commission would consider deferring the proposed athletic complex at the new Boones Creek school and invest those funds to make up the shortfall.

“Could the commission vote to postpone the sports facility at Boones Creek and put some of that money into the funding of a new Jonesborough K-8 school?” Dellinger asked.

Silence.

The second time she asked it directly to Commissioner Lynn Hodge, who sits on the Health, Education and Welfare Committee.

“I can’t answer that question, but personally, I’d have to give it a lot of thought as to whether to do that because there are a lot of reasons behind why that complex has come about to the point it is,” he replied.

School board member Clarence Mabe, who chairs the task force looking into the athletic complex, also chimed in, saying he strongly disagreed with abandoning the athletic complex.

Although the cost for the athletic facility has yet to be determined, county and Johnson City officials, who they hope to share the cost with, have previously discussed spending about $8 million.

Hodge urged school board members to strongly consider Street’s third plan, which came within budget. That plan included renovating the existing Jonesborough Middle School, as well as making additions to it.

Although that plan does entail keeping the controversial 40-year-old saucer-shaped facility, Hodge said it would not be occupied by students and would be left standing with a future use undecided.

“The main thing is that you get the space that you need for the students you have and you’re staying within budget. I would encourage you to give a lot of thought to this project rather than tearing down everything,” Hodge said to the school board.

The school board had already voted 5-4 to reject that third plan at its December meeting when it decided to move forward with building a new school in place of the old one.

Hodge got heckled by some in the crowd when he said the school board should not allow “fairness” to interfere with their decision making.

“Being a county commissioner and having fiduciary responsibilities to all of the citizens of Washington County, I cannot let fairness come into being in making a decision,” Hodge said.

“If we build a new Jonesborough school, what about the folks at Fall Branch, Sulphur Springs and any of the other schools? So for that reason, it has to be a business decision and you can’t let personal feelings rule what you should do here.”

Hodge also indicated that the request to ‘tear down the round’ and build new likely has an ill fate in store.

Chairman Jack Leonard said the school board would just have to start from scratch if either committee denies the proposal, further delaying an already delayed project.

Three parents of Jonesborough students present in the crowd said they were all delighted with the school board’s decision to “tear down the round.”

“I am really going to be really disappointed (if it doesn’t pass the committee),” parent Kerrie Aistrop said.

“Just for the simple fact Lynn Hodge made a comment that this is not about fairness. When you make comments like that, you can’t rescind them. They’re on paper. We’re not asking for Boones Creek’s school. We’re not asking for an $8 million athletic facility. We’re asking for a safe environment for our kids to go to school at.”

The Health, Education and Welfare Committee will hear and likely vote on the request at its 1 p.m. meeting Thursday at the old Washington County Courthouse. If it passes that committee, the motion will then move to the Budget Committee.

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