By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Given the substantial amount of capital the City of Johnson City invests in public education each year, the issue is never far from the minds of city leaders.
But with a special called session of the Tennessee General Assembly coming up next week to specifically address education, the issue obviously took center stage when the Johnson City Commission met virtually with members of our local legislative delegation last week. Newly elected state representatives Rebecca Alexander and Tim Hicks got a heaping helping of the city’s perspective on how education is currently funded and what needs to be taken into consideration as lawmakers begin working to find solutions as students fall behind in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Education is one of the very most important aspects of the business we run every day, because the future of our community and our country rests on the ability of young people to learn and be ready for their future in the workforce,” said City Manager Pete Peterson.
As Peterson outlined the challenge being faced by the city to fund a high-quality school system, he harkened back to the “extraordinarily creative thinking” that led to the funding mechanism used to build a new K-8 school in Jonesborough. But instead of rehashing the deal, which deprived the city of around $30 million that would have come from Washington County funding the school via traditional means, Peterson implored Alexander and Hicks to look for ways to increase school funding in order to make the quality of education better for everyone.
“There is a real need for additional education funding on both the city and the county level,” Peterson said. “The thing that is counterproductive to the whole situation is when we get into an environment where there is a perception that there is inequitable funding, and then you begin pitting cities and counties against each other fighting over a dollar. All students are potential citizens, future employees, and part of the economic engine of Northeast Tennessee, and we need to make sure they all get a good education and all get a great opportunity regardless of where they reside.”
A lot of concern was expressed about the amount of virtual schooling students have had to do over the past year. Literacy was already a concern across the state before the pandemic closed schools down, and that concern has only grown in recent months.
“I think we will be talking possibly about doing some summer school programs to bring kids up to speed,” Alexander said. “I think that is a topic that will be heavily debated.”
City leaders also expressed their concerns that the divide between students performing well and those lagging behind is only widening as the COVID-19 pandemic drags into 2021.
My kids have the benefit of four retired school teachers kicking around in their lives,” said Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise. “I think they’re probably doing better than the single parent who is trying to support a kid using a smartphone doing their schoolwork. It’s a different experience.”
For his part, Hicks said he was committed to making sure citizens in Northeast Tennessee get their fair share when it comes to public education.
“Education is something in Tennessee that is definitely going to get a lot of attention, and I think it’s time for that,” Hicks said. “We want to help Washington County and Johnson City and Northeast Tennessee through all of that. We want to make sure we’re taken care of up here.”