By Jeff Keeling
Saying Johnson City and Washington County needed to engage in a “depoliticized,” fact-based study of the pros and cons of school consolidation, Commissioner David Tomita called at Thursday’s City Commission meeting for a task force to do just that. The only commissioner to respond to Tomita’s end-of-meeting proposal, Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, voiced support for the concept.
Since Thursday, people representing the county schools, city school board and Washington County Commission have weighed in on the proposal. All have agreed as to the need for an objective study, with Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes and Johnson City Board of Education Vice Chair John Hunter both suggesting an outside consultant may be in order before a study is finalized.
Tomita, who also serves on the county commission, pointed to the county’s current deliberations over whether to build one or more new K-8 schools as a reason for fact-gathering. In two years on the city commission and five on the county commission, Tomita said he had, “heard a lot of conversation around school consolidation. I’ve heard a lot of really strong opinions from people on either side, but what I haven’t seen is any data, any real data to support it either way.”
Tomita, who also referenced imminent County Commission discussions about possibly building one or two new K-8 schools, floated the idea of a 12-person task force. The city and county commissions each would appoint three elected and three non-elected people, form the task force within two months and give it about a year to reach its conclusions. The key, he said, would be an objective approach with no pre-conceived outcomes in mind.
“We could be looking at $30 to $60 million worth of money toward capital projects,” Tomita said of county deliberations over new schools. “I’m not comfortable doing that because I really don’t think that question’s ever been answered (regarding the merits of consolidation).” Most likely, those new capital expenditures would have to be matched roughly equally by capital money, provided by the county, for city school capital needs to represent the percentage of city students as part of the entire county school population.
“There’s some questions we haven’t answered yet,” Tomita contiuned. “Our demographics. Is our student population changing? Is it rising, is it falling, and where are those students going to be attending school? I don’t think we know that. Cost of school consolidation. What does it cost? We’re talking about making big, big investments in capital. Would that money be better spent in the classroom, operationally? What’s the cost if we don’t consolidate?”
Van Brocklin agreed with the need, noting that he had brought up the same issue less than two years ago when he became mayor.
“There is some knowledge as far as cost,” Van Brocklin said. “You can run certain numbers fairly easily. You can look at what the cost is to bring county teachers up to the same pay level that municipal teachers are at. You can look at $5 million, probably, roughly there, and then there are other costs associated with it as well.”
Theoretically at least, Van Brocklin appeared supportive of consolidation for the equal opportunity it could bring.
“The advantage of course that’s been reported and quite honestly I say I ascribe to is that you want all students … to have the opportunity to avail themselves of an equal education, and it is a shame when it is in fact disparate,” he said. “I’m not sure the conclusion will be any different than the two systems that we currently have, but it’s certainly something that in my opinion would be very beneficial to look at and to arrive at that answer with the data behind it that supports it or does not support it.”
Washington County Commissioner Katie Baker chairs that commission’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee, which likely would take up the proposal, including recommendations for a task force. She said the topic of consolidation has arisen several times during her 10 months on the commission, across a variety of interest groups.
“The formation of a task force to explore the issue is certainly warranted, and it’s a promising sign that our community is open to this kind of dialogue,” Baker said. “I will work to engage committee members and fellow Commissioners in considering representatives to serve in this capacity.”
A fellow commissioner who serves on the committee agreed. Gary McAllister said he had hoped to pursue similar discussions last fall when he joined the commission, before other business took precedence.
“I’ve always thought it would be a good idea to look into it,” McAllister said. “I think the county’s got to take the initiative on it.”
Hunter, conversely, said he considered it a good sign the city was moving forward on the issue. The city schools have higher per pupil funding and higher teacher pay, and a traditional consolidation would leave education funding and control in the hands of the county. Historically, city representatives have balked at the idea if not been downright dismissive of it, and questioned whether the County Commission would exhibit the willingness to fund schools to a level they see as adequate.
“I think it’s a big step that the question is coming from the city side rather than from the county,” Hunter said. He said some important considerations in his mind include:
• determining whether the objective is higher educational attainment and equal opportunity, or whether it is primarily cost savings (which he wouldn’t support);
• developing a list of goals, questions, and priorities that the community wants to unite behind;
• keeping the process as objective and non-political as possible.
“I’m totally for it,” Hunter said. “I just want to make sure education’s a priority in the mix, that it’s not just all about cost savings, and that it’s unbiased. But is it relevant and is this a good time to do it? I absolutely think so.”
Hunter did question whether a group of local appointees could carry such a large assignment through to its greatest end.
“The expectation of appointing people to research this at a local level gives me a little concern. My thought is that if there’s a committee formed, these people develop a list of goals, questions, priorities that they want to unite behind, and then send this out to some third party, whether it’s the state or some research firm that provides an unbiased look at it and also the experience to give educated information back to this committee to report to the two local governments.”
Hunter said collaborative efforts across governmental lines in recent years suggest finding the best path forward for Washington County students as a whole is achievable.
“I think there are a lot of things that show this community is closer than it’s ever been to coming together on various levels to do what’s best for the community as a whole, rather than the ‘what’s in it for me’ approach that I feel has kind of been the history of the past for the Tri-Cities as a whole.”
The stakes are high, Hunter added.
“Education is a key to the success of a community as a whole. If we can lift up Washington County to the same level – they’re doing great with what they have provided to them – but if we are able to provide an even better workforce that’s a great recruiting tool. It also develops more of the children to a level to where they’re college-bound or technical-school bound and with a higher success rate.”
That, in turn, aids in business and employee recruitment, Hunter said.
“If we’re able to say, ‘hey, we’re top three in the state,’ that’s a great thing for us to use to give people comfort that their kids are going to be provided the same or better education as the community that they came from.”
Dykes, who will retire after the coming school year, has suggested such a study for about eight years now, he said, and said the consolidation question “peeks out of the hole annually and looks around, and sort of like the groundhog often quickly ducks back in.
“I think it’s time that perhaps the funding bodies determine whether or not consolidation can provide an educational system that would be equal to or better than the best that the educational organizations are currently providing for Washington County students, and is it the best use of taxpayer dollars? Or can we maintain status quo and even continually improve under the current financial constraints?”
Like Hunter, though, Dykes expressed doubt that an adequate study could be completed with local leaders alone. “The data that can be presented in a small task force comes with its own prejudicial information. I’ve been a proponent of an outside agency’s study of this for quite some time. There are just so many unknowns, I think it would certainly bring us some definitive answers that we currently don’t have.”