By Scott Robertson
Several people have asked me to clarify what happened at the Washington County Budget Committee workshop last week. They apparently had heard or read reports regarding a discussion about school consolidation.
Well, I’ll tell you this. There’s a good reason you won’t read in this space about how that committee started the ball rolling toward a new consolidation effort between the county schools and Johnson City’s.
It didn’t happen.
You also won’t read how at that meeting Paul Stanton became point man on a renewed effort to bring together top city and county officials for consolidation discussions.
That didn’t happen either.
And you won’t read how County Mayor Dan Eldridge told the Budget Committee it was, “in a position to say, ‘we’ll go forward’ after you are satisfied there is no possibility of consolidation.”
He never said that.
So I won’t tell you any of that. I will tell you what happened.
Nothing about the topic was discussed until about an hour and ten minutes into a two-hour meeting in which County Finance Director Mitch Meredith led the Budget Committee through different scenarios regarding capital projects and debt.
Eldridge was making the point that the county’s student population is declining, and that the county system’s enrollment is dropping faster than the Johnson City schools’ enrollment is increasing, creating a net decline countywide. “We do not need to build schools for capacity,” Eldridge said.
He then pointed out that the proposed new county K-8 schools for Boones Creek and Jonesborough will add 600 seats to the county’s existing capacity. “By the time these schools are finished, we will probably gain an additional 600 seats (totaling 1,200 empty school desks) in capacity through declining enrollment,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge then pointed out that the demographic changes are not consistent across the county. As a result, he said, there will be a need to redistrict the schools, adding, “If the commission votes to build the two new K-8s, the likelihood that there will be another school required in the county in the next 30 years is slim to none. I think we’re out of the school building business.”
After a bit more discussion, Eldridge grinned and said, “Let me throw out an idea that is just going to be remarkably unpopular. I can’t help myself.”
Cooperation, not consolidation
In order that nothing may be taken out of context, here’s the transcript of what came immediately after that statement:
Eldridge: I’m saying this from the standpoint of meeting the needs of the school systems, both systems, but at the same time, respecting the taxpayers and being the stewards we are expected to be. I just said we are gaining tremendous capacity if we build these two schools over the next few years. We heard Johnson City say they need three new schools.
(Budget committee chairman Joe) Grandy: Twenty-seven hundred seats?
Eldridge: Yeah. Twenty-seven hundred seats. I can’t reconcile those numbers, but would it not make sense for our two school systems to come together and figure out how, with the shift in population, we can utilize the capacity we have that the taxpayers have already paid for, including two new schools, to meet the school facility needs of all 17,000 kids in Washington County? You know, if…I know that…wow. (Then, directed to Gary Gray, Johnson City Press government writer) I can’t wait to see the comments, Gary.
Stanton: Well, it makes sense.
Eldridge: People are going to just cringe at the thought of doing that, however, at some point we have to acknowledge what’s really going on in this county – and I am not saying you have to consolidate the schools at all. As a matter of fact, I remain opposed to that. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out how to utilize these facilities in a more effective efficient way, as opposed to spending $60 million per school to build a new one. We can’t do stuff like that anymore.
Stanton: I don’t see why it can’t be done. Let me give you an example at a different level. I was told there was no way we could use the Northeast State Allandale Campus for both Northeast State and ETSU because of the difference in salary structure and different management structure, and we did it. We saved multi-millions of dollars and it’s still working. I think some combination of city-county cooperation in facilities that are going to get less and less needed in the future – you can look at the management structure, maybe have some sort of super-manager over this combination in this brave new world. I think it could work, but people have to talk.
Please note that the only mention of consolidation to this point was the mayor’s statement of opposition. The discussion was about sharing the extra seats in the new Boones Creek K-8 school with the city system in order to avoid the extra expense of building yet more new schools for a declining population.
When to go forward
I mentioned Eldridge having been quoted as saying the committee was “in a position to say, ‘we’ll go forward’ after you are satisfied there is no possibility of consolidation.”
Here’s what he said: “You all have a unique opportunity because none of this goes forward until you make a recommendation for it to go forward. So I think in that respect, you are uniquely positioned to say, ‘We want there to be meaningful discussions about the joint use of a facility, joint management, whatever.’ Until you have had some meaningful dialogue between the systems about the potential to accomplish what we’re talking about here and save literally tens of millions of dollars in the process, you stand to say, or are in a position to say, ‘We’ll go forward after you have satisfied us that this is not possible or after you have reconsidered this, given the possibility of doing it.” *
If not leverage, then charm
Grandy immediately pushed back against using the committee’s leverage to hold up the funding process in any way. “I think we need to keep at least the Boones Creek project moving forward,” he said. “Statutorially, our function is to fund these projects, not to tell the school boards how to run their schools.”
Stanton countered, “I certainly would like to see us press forward on some sort of city-county think tank type of initiative. That’s not going to get done unless we take the point on it. There is a task force. I don’t know how often it’s meeting. I sat in on one of them several months ago and didn’t see much getting done there.
“The dollars and cents can be worked through,” Stanton continued. “The management can be worked through. But at the rate our task forces are meeting, nothing is going to get done. We need to move aggressively and quickly.”
At that point, Eldridge moved away from the idea of leveraging the committee’s power of the purse strings and instead took a position of moving forward with Boones Creek construction and bringing Johnson City along as a partner in the meantime. “Based on what Dr. Stanton is describing,” Eldridge said, “you’re talking about having to work out operational issues. If we started today, we have two-and-a-half years to figure out how to manage that school operation.”
Said Eldridge, “What if we asked Dr. Stanton to identify the people he believes would be most appropriate to bring together on both sides and start to have a very meaningful discussion about how to accomplish what we just very generally talked about here today?”
Commissioner Todd Hensley then proposed the committee issue a formal statement of what it had discussed in the workshop. That idea was met with general agreement until Hensley began nudging the content of the statement back toward general terms about school collaboration. Commisioner Rick Storey said, “I thought the goal of the statement was to talk about a joint school.” Eldridge added, “a joint school to really make funding of the capital needs feasible.”
Since the meeting was a workshop, no official action could be taken, but the members did agree to consider putting together the statement, and Stanton agreed to consider taking on the responsibility of bringing together parties necessary to act on the idea of a jointly operated school.
The committee is slated to meet again this morning at the Washington County Courthouse.
*It was at just after this that the word ‘consolidation’ actually entered the discussion. Hensley made a general statement in favor of consolidation, which was echoed by Commission Lynn Hodge. However, Eldridge, Grandy and Meredith all followed up Hensley’s and Hodge’s comments with remarks that brought the discussion back to the possibility of cooperation on one school only.