Jonesborough school project faces crucial vote Monday

Robert Houk • Oct 27, 2019 at 9:00 AM

The fate of a proposed new Jonesborough K-8 school and sports complex could be decided Monday.

The Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen will meet at 4 p.m. to act on a revised agreement with Washington County for the town to build the new school. The County Commission is also scheduled to vote on a lease-purchase agreement with Jonesborough at its regular meeting at 6 p.m.

If the two sides don’t see eye-to-eye on terms for the K-8 school, the project could be in jeopardy.

“Monday’s vote could make or break the deal,” said Commissioner Jim Wheeler, who serves as the town’s attorney and has played a key role in negotiations between the town and the county.   

Making A Deal

Commissioners contacted last week said the outcome of Monday’s crucial vote on the Jonesborough school project is still anybody’s guess.

“We are close to a vote, but there are still questions many commissioners want to ask,” Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said. “Can we get all those questions answered Monday? I don’t know.”

Matherly said the school project has “so many moving parts” involving Washington County, Jonesborough and the county’s Board of Education, that even if a positive vote is cast by the County Commission on Monday, it won’t be the last for the project.

Wheeler, who has recused himself from previous commission votes on the school project, said the town has been dismayed by what it sees as “poison pills” the county have asked to be included in revisions to project’s lease and facilities agreements.

Some of those objectionable items, including a provision asking Jonesborough to cover the costs of any legal judgements awarded to Johnson City as a result of the lease-purchase project, have been removed.

However, one provision asking that the design cost for the project be capped and requiring the town to cover any costs exceeding that amount is something Jonesborough won’t agree to do.

“I don’t think the prospects for this project look good beyond Monday if we can’t agree on those terms,” he said.

Asking Key Questions

Commissioner Mike Ford said he will to be among the commissioners asking tough questions about the Jonesborough project on Monday. He said the length of the lease agreement with the town concerns him, as well as details of the facilities agreement and who should bear legal costs for the project.

“And what are we going to do for Johnson City schools?” Ford asked. “City residents are paying 61% of the taxes in this county.”

Commissioners are also scheduled to vote Monday on a separate resolution authorizing county Mayor Joe Grandy to “investigate, negotiate and execute with the city of Johnson City and the local education agency operating within that municipality to identify the terms that would resolve dispute over the interpretation of the Jonesborough proposal.”

Commissioner Freddie Malone, who pushed for that resolution in the county’s Budget Committee, said the Jonesborough proposal offers the best chance for the town getting a new K-8 school within the next five years, and for Johnson City to receive some county funds for its school needs.

He said the project could be funded within the county’s existing cash flow, meaning taxpayers would be spared the burden of a property tax increase.

“We will have a vote on the school resolution Monday,” Malone said. “I expect there will be some amendments coming from the floor.”

Reviewing The Details

Other commissioners said they were still evaluating the 85 pages of the inter-local, building and facilities lease agreements with Jonesborough posted on the county’s website.

Commissioner Suzy Williams said Friday she was still studying the proposal, but is “very much in favor” of seeing the project come to a vote at Monday’s meeting.

“I’m still working on them,” Commissioner Steve Light said in reference to the lease documents. “I’d like to have all the information I can get.”

Commissioner Jerome Fitzgerald said he believes the board needs to make a firm decision on the school project at its regular meeting. 

“I want to move forward and work together to make this happen for the kids,” said Fitzgerald.

A Long-Term Commitment

According to documents posted on washingtoncountytn.org, the revised building lease agreement “clarifies that Washington County’s maximum rent shall not exceed the cost of financing the amount of $32 million of principal at a fixed rate of 3% per year — for a fixed period not to exceed 38 years.”

The facilities lease agreement between the town and Washington County also states the county’s payments “of rent in the amount of $41,700 per month for a fixed period not to exceed 38 years shall be attributable to the town’s maintenance and management of the facilities, other parks and recreation programming of the town and other uses” and may create a financial obligation of up to $19 million.

That’s in addition to the $32 million for the building lease agreement. 

Commissioner Gary McAllister said that added cost makes the Jonesborough project a $51 million obligation to the county for as many as 38 years.

“That’s a big commitment, so we have to get it right,” McAllister said.