By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Most everyone agrees by that using the town of Jonesborough as a third party to borrow $32.75 million for the construction of a new K-8 school, Washington County has boldly gone where no government entity in the state of Tennessee has gone before.
The debate raging now in Johnson City is what to do about it.
Parents, teachers and other members of the community packed the chamber for last week’s meeting of the Johnson City Board of Commissioners to weigh in on a proposed inter-local agreement that would require the county to pay Johnson City $12.5 million over 25 years – $500,000 per year – to help offset the loss of an estimated $30 million Johnson City would have received if the county had funded the new school through the traditional method of issuing bonds.
With several major school projects looming – including the conversion of Indian Trail into a second middle school, the expansion of some of the city’s elementary schools to facilitate moving fifth-graders from Indian Trail back to the elementary level and the proposed replacement of Towne Acres Elementary School – there is an appetite among members of the Johnson City Board of Education and the city’s teacher’s union to sue the county in an effort to receive the full $30 million the city would have received if the county had issued bonds.
“The inter-local agreement in its current form does little to appease the needs of Johnson City Schools,” said Johnson City Education Association President Joe Crabtree. “If the agreement is accepted, it will set a precedent across the state that could have overwhelming funding effects for city-county school districts.”
Johnson City staff attorney Sunny Sandos agrees the funding mechanism in Washington County does not provide proportionate funding for Johnson City Schools, but added that the funding mechanism “is not illegal under current statutory language, as there are no state laws that force the county to borrow funds in any particular way.”
There are, however, avenues to pursue if members of the Board of Education or the City Commission decide to sue the county, but Sandos said the likelihood of winning a lawsuit needs to be considered since the county technically does not have to give the city any funds if the agreement between the county and the town of Jonesborough withstands the scrutiny of the court system.
“At the end of the day, the city must weigh its chances of getting nothing versus some guaranteed funding,” Sandos said in a statement. “We stand to lose far more than $12.5 million in the form of financial impact to our taxpayers if we litigate.”
City Manager Pete Peterson reiterated those sentiments last Friday morning following Thursday’s joint informational meeting that included the City Commission, the Johnson City School Board and attorneys.
“Nobody knows for sure if it’s legal or illegal, but what we do know is that if we challenge it, in all likelihood, Washington County will take the deal off the table and there’s no monetary pot of money out there even if we do win the lawsuit,” Peterson said.
While the leadership of the Johnson City Education Association cited the need to fund expansion projects at Lake Ridge, South Side and Woodland elementary schools as a reason to oppose the inter-local agreement with the county, Peterson said those projects have already been funded through the city’s PEP Fund.
“We’ve got about $16 million worth of school construction either under design or out to bid right now,” he said. “We’ve got that all covered with city funds.”
However, the construction of a new school to replace Towne Acres – another priority listed by the JCEA – is not among the projects currently funded. Replacing the school was a key topic during the public input portion of last Thursday’s City Commission meeting, but Peterson said the project most likely won’t happen in the near future regardless of what transpires between the city and Washington County.
“That’s probably a 25 to 30 million-dollar project, and the funding does not exist to do the Towne Acres School,” Peterson said. “I think there are people who were thinking, well, if this agreement isn’t approved, there will be this pot of money for us to do Towne Acres immediately.
“Even if that were to happen, there isn’t enough money to make Towne Acres happen,” said Peterson, adding that he doesn’t expect a new Towne Acres to be built for about another decade unless there is a tax increase to fund it.
The City Commission is scheduled to vote on the inter-local agreement on March 12 at 4:30 p.m. Regardless of the outcome, Peterson said the city will continue work to move to two middle schools, calling the move “mission critical” due to capacity issues.
“We’ve got to create space at that middle school level, and the only real way to accomplish that is to move fifth grade back to the elementary school level,” Peterson said.