Jonesborough approves school plan

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Aug 22, 2019 at 5:26 PM

Regardless of whether Jonesborough’s school plan is approved by Washington County, Director of Schools Bill Flanary is firm in his belief Jonesborough needs a new school.

“We’ve got to do something in Jonesborough, it’s past time,” he said after Thursday’s special called meeting of Jonesborough’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

“These kids need a facility — a nice facility — just like anyone else in the county and the region.”

Board members unanimously approved a resolution for the plan proposed by town Mayor Chuck Vest.

“It’s encouraging,” Vest said. “We’ve got a great board here that’s very progressive and forward-thinking, and I’ve always said, the worst thing a small town could do is quit looking forward, because if they do, they dry up and go away.

“It’s just another positive step for Jonesborough and solidifies the town’s future for the next 40, 50 years,” he added.

The plan would have the town build a new pre-K-8 school off North Cherokee Street and enter into a lease-to-own deal with Washington County, which would make annual payments of $2.362 million as part of a 20-year lease. Vest said the project has an estimated budget of $32 million, but he’s optimistic the town will be able to complete it for under $30 million.

“We do expect to try and get that down to the $28-30 million range,” Vest said.

The resolution will now head to the Washington County Board of Education on Thursday night. Flanary said he isn’t sure how his fellow board members will vote, but Vest expressed confidence, pointing to several supporters on the board.

If the school board passes the plan, it will go to the Washington County Commission. Should the commission pass it as well, it will go back to Jonesborough’s board for final approval. There is no time frame for approval, plans or construction yet.

“It’s time to do something in Jonesborough,” Flanary said. “The plan that the town has brought is viable; we’ll see how the school board and commission feel about it.”

Potential Legal Challenges

Jonesborough’s board passing the resolution was just the “second win” of a long process that could face legal pushback from Johnson City Schools.

Since districts within a single county are to share all county tax revenue devoted to schools, Johnson City would receive a share from any Washington County capital bonds issued for school buildings. City residents also pay county taxes, and funds are allocated on a per-pupil basis. If Jonesborough uses its own funding to build a school, however, there would be no county bonds to share.

Following the meeting, the mayor and aldermen went into an executive session with the town’s attorneys. Tennessee Supreme Court rulings have allowed such closed meetings when litigation is pending or when controversy is brewing, which is defined as pending or threatened litigation. Vest, however, said that they “don’t foresee any” legal hurdles, which means the meeting could be in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, otherwise known as Sunshine Law. 

Deborah Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said a board “can only call a closed session to discuss current, pending or threatened litigation.”

TCOG’s website states that any action taken during a closed door session would be “of no effect.” Vest said during the meeting that “there won’t be any decisions made, but we’ll go back there and talk to these two high-priced lawyers about staying out of trouble.”

Town Attorney Jim Wheeler said the meeting was about “legal matters,” and that another lawyer would be “advising the town with respect to the legal documents and transaction going forward.” 

Fisher said a closed session cannot be called to go over lease agreements or anything other than pending, threatened or current litigation. 

“If (the board) is anticipating litigation, they can get advice from their attorney in a closed session,” she said, adding that a board cannot call a closed session to plan how to set up lease agreements “to avoid litigation.”

Knoxville attorney Matt Grossman will be advising the town going forward on the project, as town attorney Jim Wheeler is a member of the Washington County Commission.  

“We feel it’s best to make sure we have counsel focused solely on Jonesborough and the creation of lease and legal documents,” Vest said, again adding that they “don’t foresee any litigation in the future.”

Flanary also commented on the possibility of legal challenges.

“It’s exciting, but I guess that’s why we have lawyers in every single meeting — two in this meeting alone — and we scheduled our meeting next week around the availability of our attorneys,” Flanary said. “There’s a lot of legalities, but every lawyer who’s looked at this so far has said ‘yes, it passes muster’.”