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City school officials raise concerns amid Jonesborough plan

Brandon Paykamian • Aug 30, 2019 at 8:00 PM

Johnson City Schools officials worry recent Washington County plans to pay for new school construction could deprive city residents of needed funding for education.

The Washington County Board of Education approved an agreement with Jonesborough Thursday allowing the county to lease a new K-8 school not yet built by the town.

Johnson City Board of Education Chairman Tim Belisle said he believes the Washington County Board of Education made the right move for its students, despite his board’s concerns over the Jonesborough plan.

“We are happy that the students in Jonesborough have an option for a new school finally, and the (Washington County) Board of Education moving with this is a positive thing for the students in Jonesborough,” he said. “It’s the financing plan that concerns us, and nothing has changed about that. I think it’s an important distinction to make.”

According to state law, school districts within counties share county tax revenue devoted to education, meaning Johnson City should receive a share from any Washington County capital bonds issued for school buildings.

But if Jonesborough uses its own funding to build a school, there would be no bonds to share.

These concerns come amid a new Johnson City Schools reconfiguration plan that aims to create two new middle schools for grades 6-8 and put fifth-graders back in elementary schools. The plan has created about $30 million in capital needs for new facilities at Towne Acres Elementary School and renovations to Lake Ridge, Woodland and South Side Elementary schools.

Belisle said there may be even more capital needs on the horizon due to consistent enrollment growth in the district.

“We’re approaching the point where we’re going to need a brand new elementary school that doesn’t even exist today,” he said.

Board members have already been concerned about equitable funding for capital projects after a 40-cent property tax increase for all county residents enacted in 2016.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Board Member Kathy Hall said Washington County has been taking advantage of a court-supported loophole allowing officials to use a cash fund from taxpayers for county projects exclusively.

“We have been concerned since the tax increase in 2016, which allocated 32 cents of the 40 cents toward the county school capital fund account, and it was explicitly stated at the time by the county mayor and other county leaders that the intention was to cash fund capital improvements for the Washington County Schools, with the expressed purpose of avoiding having to share borrowed money with the city schools,” Belisle said.

“Johnson City educates about 48% of all the students in the county, and the Washington County Board of Education educates about 52%, so if the funding for the Jonesborough school was handled appropriately under state law, Johnson City would be entitled to 48% of whatever funds were borrowed for building the Jonesborough School.”

And Belisle said the Jonesborough plan essentially leaves funding for Johnson City’s capital projects up in the air.

“We don’t know how that would be handled,” he said, adding that he would like to see a “win-win resolution” for both district’s needs.

Superintendent Steve Barnett agreed with the assertion that Jonesborough students need a new school to replace their outdated facilities, and he also hopes to see a solution to both system’s concerns.

“We are happy about the possibility of a much needed new school for the Jonesborough community. We understand how important a learning environment is to help students achieve their highest goals. I am optimistic the capital needs of all students enrolled in Washington County and Johnson City Schools will be met in the near future,” Barnett said in an emailed statement to the Press.

Efforts to reach other Johnson City Board of Education members on Friday were unsuccessful.

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