While Washington County Board of Education members are currently finalizing plans to build one Boones Creek Middle School and renovate Jonesborough Elementary and Middle Schools, they may also begin to take a look at the other school buildings in the district and their dwindling numbers.
At least that is what county leaders hope the school board will take into consideration.
6th District Washington County Commissioner Tom Kreiger, who noted the low enrollment numbers as a whole, started to bring up the discussion as the county began to look at building new schools. Krieger said that he would hope the BOE would take a more business like approach at addressing their facilities.
“If I was running a business, I would have to look at all my manufacturing plants and see which ones are really productive and which ones are less productive and is there somewhere I could reduce my number of facilities and still have the same output,” Krieger said.
Currently the school system is close to 700 students under capacity as a whole, with multiple schools well under their high functional capacity numbers.
The three schools that are currently under capacity the most — besides David Crockett, which is 265 away from capacity — are West View, under their high functional capacity which is 158 students, Sulphur Springs down 137 students and South Central down by 106 students.
Jonesborough Middle and Lamar are also down 107 students and 86 students, respectively.
A common denominator with these schools is their age. Sulphur Springs was built in 1939, the same time as Boones Creek Middle School and Fall Branch. West View was constructed in 1959, while Jonesborough Middle was completed in 1950.
The four newest schools in the system are Grandview and Ridgeview which were constructed in 2008, Lamar (1998) and South Central (1996).
The older school projects, including some at Midway and Asbury, are scheduled to have close to $2 million worth of renovations completed on them between 2016-2021. That includes $570,000 for structural flooring replacement and key hardware to West View in 2020-2021. During this school year, $560,000 is set to be spent on South Central for the roof.
With those projects on the horizon, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge would like to see the issue addressed.
“It is time for them (BOE) to address their long-term strategy for how they are going to manage a smaller school system,” Eldridge said. “They need look no further than next door in Sullivan County to see what can happen when you delay that decision too long.”
He noted that it would be a tough conversation to start and one that would need a lengthy and though vetting before any decisions were made.
“It’s a tough thing to do and talk about, you’re talking about decisions that are going to impact individual communities and I understand that, for the school board,” he said.
Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton agrees that a study should be done, but she also says that the school system is taking steps — such as increasing the academic rigor of the system and providing students and teachers with technology as tools to improve classroom efficiency — to improve the perception and hopefully increase the numbers of the system.
“I think that this is something over time might correct itself,” said Halliburton, noting that enrollment had increased by 36 students this year. “Parents are our number one customers and parents typically decide where their son or daughter is going to go to school. And I think that with the positive energy in this district and that parents are really pleased with the changes they are seeing in our academic program.
“I know that board members have expressed an interest in doing a facilities look to see where the money is going. I know that a few of them are attached to these schools, they have a personal connection with these schools and it’s a difficult thing. You’ve got communities of people…but if you look at South Central, West View and Sulphur Springs, they are under capacity and they are our smaller buildings. So you currently could save some money by combining these smaller schools into one, because you have one electric bill to pay, one roof to replace, one HVAC system to replace, one parking lot to repair. So certainly we need to take a look at it.”
Some school board members have voiced opposition in open meetings with the idea of that discussion. Washington County Board of Education Chairman Jack Leonard was unavailable for comment.
Eldridge said that this very topic would be one that he is planning to share during his State of the County Address in the coming months.
“We have got to come to terms with what is going on with the student population across Washington County. That impacts both the Washington County School System and the Johnson City Schools System.
“The number of students is declining and it has been declining for a number of years and the Census projections indicate that it is going to continue to decline over the next 10 years. Clearly the next 20 years are going to look nothing like the last 20 years. So here is the problem. We’ve got two school systems in this county operating like the next 20 years are going to be just like the next 20.”