By Scott Robertson
The Washington County Commission raised property taxes last year with the largest portions of the revenue planned to go to the creation of a new K-8 school in Boones Creek and renovations to Jonesborough’s elementary and middle schools. The figures the commission based the increase on came from cost estimates developed under then-Director of Schools Ronald Dykes.
Almost concurrent to the tax hike, Dykes retired and was replaced by Kimber Halliburton, who brought forward a new set of ideas for Jonesborough, including creation of an academic magnet school. Halliburton branded her ideas, which the school board has since voted to support, the Washington Way.
Since that time, the school board has chosen a site for the new Boones Creek K-8 school and is working on a building plan with architect Tony Street. The tax hike presupposed the cost of the new Boones Creek K-8 at or around $31 million.
But there’s a problem. In addition to the $31 million for Boones Creek, the tax hike presupposed a cost for Jonesborough renovations of around $9.9 million. The Washington Way plan for Jonesborough adds millions of dollars in additional costs.
According to County Budget and Finance Director Mitch Meredith, the county can’t afford both a $31 million Boones Creek K-8 and the full Washington Way plan for Jonesborough without ramping up its debt to untenable levels. Meredith told the school board and the county commission’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee as much at a joint workshop last November. To do so, he said, would, “more than max out the credit card.”
Meredith said funding the full Washington Way plan would result in $135 million in additional debt to the county, even with last year’s tax increase already in place. That kind of borrowing would give Washington County the third highest per capita debt load of any county in the state, behind only Davidson and Williamson Counties, which are both enjoying boom economies with around 20 percent growth. Washington County’s growth is around 1 percent.
Meredith instead suggested scaling down Boones Creek K-8 to around $25 million. That, he said, would save enough revenue to fund the Washington Way plans for Jonesborough. What Meredith proposed would still result in roughly $68 million more debt, taking Washington County’s debt load from the 32nd largest of the state’s 95 counties to the 12th.
Those numbers were discussed at the Budget Committee meeting last week, along with recommendations of spending $500,000 for design work on the Jonesborough Academic Magnet School and $750,000 for purchase of land for the Jonesborough K-8 project.
The school board, however, has shown no interest in the idea of scaling back Boones Creek. The tax hike presupposed $31 million, and they reckon that’s what they’ll spend.
So let’s put aside all the zeroes and look at this as though we were planning our own budgets. Let’s say we own two cars, both of which need to be replaced. At first, we decide to spend $62,000 on a nice new sedan to replace the first one and $18,000 for a used car to replace the second. But then we find out we’re going to have to put more miles on the second car, so we’re going to need something more dependable. Well, common sense tells us we can’t spend more on the second car and still pay as much for the first.
Now, here’s the kicker. That expensive first car is much more car than we need. The $31 million Boones Creek K-8 is designed to accommodate student body growth that’s just not happening. It has hundreds of empty seats built in. The idea is that we should be ready for growth – should it occur. Well, it costs money to build out that extra space, and not only is there no guarantee that the number of students will grow, it’s highly likely it won’t.
Nobody in the economic development community is forecasting significant growth for any county in Northeast Tennessee. In fact, counties around us are starting to see declines. Achieving the growth needed to fill the $31 million Boones Creek K-8 is a long shot at best. It would be good, but it can’t be expected.
Spending money now in case something unexpectedly good happens down the road is like writing your family budget to factor in what you hope to win playing the lottery. It’s not conservative and it’s not responsible.
Education funding is limited, and education is the key to a prosperous future for our community. We need to make sure every penny is put to its best use.