Johnson City school board chairman struggles with Jonesborough school plan

David Floyd • Updated Aug 23, 2019 at 9:47 AM

There’s no question that the Washington County School system has capital needs, Johnson City School Board Chairman Tim Belisle said.

The city school system, he said, has those same needs.

Because it proposes using tax money from city and county residents, Belisle said he struggles with a plan to build a new K-8 school and recreational facility in Jonesborough as part of a lease-to-own deal with Washington County. The town would lease the school and the recreational facilities to the county, which would make annual payments of $2.36 million on a 20-year lease. Washington County schools would take over ownership of the school building at the end of the term.

“I struggle to see how it would be permissible under the bond laws for the Town of Jonesborough to borrow money for this purpose,” Belisle said.

State law theoretically requires the county to divide money for school capital projects between all districts within the county on a per-pupil basis. Most recently, Washington County has taken advantage of a court-supported loophole allowing it to use a cash fund for county projects exclusively, over the city’s objections. The county issued bonds for only a portion of the $28 million used to build the new Boones Creek School, which opened earlier this month.

So the city received $8 million from those county bonds, which paid for a new gym and cafeteria at Liberty Bell Middle School. 

Belisle said the city school board had not yet set its agenda for its next meeting, but he’s sure there will be some conversations about this issue. He said he had not heard any reactions from other board members about the plan, and the board had also not had any conversations with the Town of Jonesborough or Washington County.

Asked whether there would be a possibility that the Jonesborough school plan could face a legal challenge from the city school system, Belisle said it was difficult for him to say because the board had not discussed it.

“From my perspective, I think all things need to be on the table,” he said.

Belisle said the city school board works “collegially” with the county school board.

“We respect them a lot, and we don’t want to take anything away from the county school board, the county school system or certainly not the county students,” he said, “but at the same time we have an obligation to the students of the city.”

Belisle said the city school system has significant capital needs. He said the system’s student population has increased by about 700 students over the past 10 years, and the system is also considering a reconfiguration of its middle school grades, which would involve moving fifth-graders from the intermediate schools back to the elementary schools.

“The lack of availability of funds puts real pressure on our ability to do that,” he said.

The Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the school plan during a special called meeting Thursday morning. The plan will next go to the Washington County School Board on Thursday night, and if it receives approval, will go to the Washington County Commission.

Belisle said Washington County and Johnson City have high-achieving students, which contributes to the overall culture of the area.

“It’s just unfortunate that we see some people who believe that it’s appropriate to disadvantage one group of students in favor of another group of students,” Belisle said. “I hope that we can figure out a way to avoid that so that all students have the opportunity to have the access to the tax dollars, which provide access to the appropriate facilities.”

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said she supports the Town of Jonesborough in its effort to build a new school, noting that leaders have a good plan that should provide a state-of-the art facility to students.

She and Commissioner John Hunter attended the joint workshop on Aug. 15 where town leaders made the school proposal to Washington County Commissioners and members of the county school board.

“I didn’t get all the answers for everything would work, but I have a better feeling and understanding about it,” she said.

Brock said she is still working through the funding implications.

“I just don’t know, and that’s kind of what we need to get figured out,” she said, “and quite honestly I think they have a long way to go to figure out if something like this is going to work, and if that takes place, we’ll work with the county to kind of see how all this is going to manifest itself.”

She also said it’s very premature to consider litigation.

“I think we’d rather sit down and talk to the county first,” she said. “There’s a lot of steps in this process.”

Johnson City attorney Erick Herrin declined to comment.