Jonesborough school deal to be heard by County Commission

Robert Houk • Updated Sep 12, 2019 at 9:55 AM

Washington County’s Budget Committee endorsed “in concept” Jonesborough’s plan to build a new K-8 school on Wednesday, and voted to put a still-developing lease-to-own agreement with the town before the full County Commission when it meets Sept. 23.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy asked $250,000 be added to the motion to cover design work to keep the Jonesborough school project moving forward while the details of the lease agreement between the town and the county are being worked out.

“The process is still in review, but it’s an awesome project,” Grandy told committee members. “We have an excellent opportunity for a new school and for Jonesborough to meet its needs.”

The town of Jonesborough has proposed spending as much as $32 million to build a K-8 school and athletic complex on a 48-acre tract that it will buy off North Cherokee Street. The town would enter into a 20-year lease-to-own deal with Washington County.

At the end of that lease agreement, the county’s Board of Education would own the school building and the town would own the sports complex.

Commissioner Freddie Malone, who made the motion to move the project to the next stage. said the town’s proposal is the “only viable option” from a financial standpoint.

“It’s the only mechanism I see for Jonesborough to get a new school in the near future,” he said.

Malone said it was also important to note that Jonesborough would be getting the new school without the county being forced to raise its property taxes.

“My friends and neighbors have told me the same thing,” Commissioner Larry England said. “They said build those kids a new school, but don’t raise our taxes.”

Mitch Meredith, the county’s director of budget and administration, said the county currently has the funds available in its capital projects fund to cover the projected $2.5 million annual lease for the new school.

He said if all goes as planned in the construction phase, the county could begin making lease payments on the new school in the 2023 budget year.

“If all the dominoes fall the way they are suposed to, then — yes — this is a doable plan,” Meredith told the committee.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler, who serves as the town’s attorney, recused himself from Wednesday’s vote in the Budget Committee. Wheeler said that while he has no direct personal financial interest in the project, he is representing the town in developing the school proposal.

Meanwhile, Grandy said the county has hired the Baker-Donelson law firm to research the legality of the county’s role in the proposed lease deal for the school.

“They have a team working on it, and they believe we can move forward,” he said.

Wheeler said Jonesborough felt confident it could proceed with financing for the project after spending money on three legal opinions and consulting with bond counsel.

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