By Scott Robertson
After what might be termed a sputtering start, Washington County is on the road to building a new K-8 school to replace Boones Creek Elementary and Middle Schools. The county commission Monday voted 19-2 (with one abstention and three commissioners absent) to authorize Mayor Dan Eldridge to enter into negotiations to purchase between 20 and 56 acres from property owner Alex Williams to serve as the site for the new school.
The resolution approved by the commission mandates the purchase price be no greater than $35,000 per acre and no greater than $1.875 million in total. The county has had an option on the Williams property since May of this year.
School building projects can be complicated in the county by the fact that at least three governmental entities play significant roles. The school board has the responsibility of picking the site and the architect. The county commission has the responsibility of funding the project. The mayor is responsible for negotiating the terms of sale with the property owner.
The school board took three months to approve the Williams site, despite no other sites meeting the criteria set forth. The final vote in favor was 5-4, following votes that failed in the previous two months (5-4 and 4-4). That lack of unanimity on the school board’s part led at least one county commissioner to withhold his support for the site.
Commissioner Lee Chase said, “I want to state that I have been very much in support of the Boones Creek replacement of elementary and middle school…however, I cannot support this resolution based on the current recommended site.” Chase said the site was, “not a Boones Creek school,” and that it was “practically surrounded on two sides with incorporated Johnson City.
“The selection of this site will be a plague on the people that have to travel Highway 354, the Boones Creek Highway and Highland Church Road, both two-lane roads,” Chase continued. “This will be a daily nightmare.
“In good conscience, I cannot vote to appropriate the funds to purchase this site,” Chase concluded.
Commissioner Lynn Hodge then pointed out that Johnson City is no longer capable of annexing the property, so the proximity of the existing city limits is of much less concern.
Commissioners Rick Storey and Joe Grandy said the state has already agreed to help with traffic management, enhancing the intersection with turn lanes and signalization. Commissioner Mark Larkey then said he expected whatever the state comes up with to be an improvement over the current traffic situation around the existing Boones Creek Middle School, which he called, “the very definition of bottleneck.”
Commissioner Mike Ford, who opposed the tax increase that will fund the purchase of the property referenced the fact that the county commission did not have the authority to tell the school board to go back to find a different site. “We have been playing with this for over two years…I’m not totally tickled to death with the site that’s been chosen, but I didn’t choose it. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Construction is scheduled to begin in May 2017. The goal is to open the new school in August 2019, but some commissioners have expressed concerns that the school board’s delay in finalizing a site could push that back to January 2020 if any delays occur during construction.