First in a two-part series
By Scott Robertson
With the Boones Creek K-8 school moving forward, the idea of two new high schools in Washington County appears to be gaining steam. Since becoming director of the Washington County schools just less than two months ago, Kimber Halliburton has implemented changes that could pave the way for increased use of technology and the creation of a pair of new concept-driven high schools in the system – one for career and technical students and the other an academic magnet school. Halliburton is branding the philosophy behind those changes, “The Washington Way.”
“The Washington Way is a belief and an attitude,” Halliburton said during a demonstration of new classroom technology last week at the central office. “We often use the hashtag #evenbetter. It’s a statement that as we grow in our positions, we want to become even better for our students.”
“Mr. Dykes left us in a really good position,” Halliburton said, “but I started asking myself what opportunities we can give our students that we aren’t giving yet.”
Halliburton cited three priorities in implementing the Washington Way: increasing academic rigor in the classroom by improving the quality of instruction, providing more parent choice, and increasing what she refers to as “student learning opportunities.”
In talking about parent choice, Halliburton brought up the idea of creating a career tech high school on the current Boones Creek Elementary School site as elementary students move into the newly funded Boones Creek K-8 school. “Some parents have an understanding of the local job market and know their child will not need to become a doctor or an attorney. Maybe that child is showing an interest in a field like mechanics or welding or electricity or plumbing. This school might appeal to them.”
Because of the relative proximity of Northeast State Community College, the system is considering a dual enrollment program at the career tech high school. “Students could earn college credit while still attending that school and possibly end his or her high school with a certificate in welding and be work- and career-ready by graduation,” Halliburton explained.
At the same time, Halliburton said, portions of the existing Jonesborough elementary and middle schools could be demolished while other parts would be renovated to create an academic magnet high school. “That would be appealing to parents of students who were performing at a high level,” Halliburton said. Students at both new high schools would be able to participate in athletic competition at the county’s existing high schools.
All of this is made possible by the county’s commitment to build the new Boones Creek K-8 school. More details of that process became public this week, including the county mayor’s decision to hold off on closing the purchase of the site to avoid potentially overspending.
K-8 site sale to close in spring 2017
The county board of education approved a site for the new Boones Creek K-8 school at its Aug. 10 meeting. The county commission approved a budget for the purchase of the land Aug. 22. So County Mayor Dan Eldridge is free to sign a purchase agreement for that plot. But since he can hold off without delaying the building process, Eldridge said he’s not going to make a specific offer just yet, preferring to wait until the architect says exactly how many acres the county will need.
The county plans to purchase up to 56 acres from Alex Williams along Boones Creek Road at Highland Church Road north of Johnson City.
“The elements of negotiation are pretty much done,” Eldridge said. “Our staff attorney, Brett Mayes, is preparing a purchase agreement that essentially incorporates the terms that were part of the option. It does leave the amount of acreage open, though it identifies the cost per acre (at $35,000).” The agreement also states the total cost will not exceed $1.885 million, as was specified by the county commission.
“Mr. Williams is aware of all of this,” Eldridge said. “He knows that it may be three months before we know how much land we’re going to need to have. I’m just not going to go buy 56 acres – or 20 acres – when we don’t yet have a concept plan for the school.
“The only thing we know today is where it’s going to go,” Eldridge continued. “So we will let Tony Street (the architect hired by the school board to design the new school) fully develop the site plan with everything the school board will have to have. Then we’ll know exactly how much land we need to buy and will put that into the agreement and know what the purchase price is going to be.”
Street is scheduled to present a completed design in February 2017. Closing on the land purchase is scheduled for May 2017.
In pace requiescat?
If anyone were upset by the perceived delay in closing, the delay in discussions between the city and county over collaboration on that school might be even more upsetting. It will certainly be longer.
Washington County Commissioner and former East Tennessee State University President Dr. Paul Stanton had ambitiously named the group charged with considering city-county school collaborations PAX, the Partnership for Academic Excellence. The word “pax,” Stanton pointed out, is Latin for “peace.” Today, however, Stanton is battling the notion that the effort is moving from “pax” to “in pace requiescat.*”
PAX was to have considered what form, if any, collaboration between the Johnson City and Washington County school systems pertaining to the Boones Creek school might take.
Its long-awaited first meeting was slated for 5 p.m. today. However, a Monday afternoon discussion between Stanton and Halliburton led to the cancellation of the inaugural PAX meeting, with no new meeting date scheduled.
“I would hasten to say this is not dead,” Stanton said Monday. “It will just take a little while longer than I had hoped.”
At issue is the high turnover in 2016-2017 in leadership positions in both the city and county. “We have a couple of new school board members in both the city and the county as well as perhaps both boards repositioning their chairs,” Stanton said.
The retirement of Dr. Richard Bales, Johnson City’s director of schools, was an even more important consideration. “That is a key position for outcomes,” Stanton said.
With a new director of schools in Johnson City unlikely to take office before July 1, 2017, almost a year will have passed while planning and construction of the school as a county-only institution will have continued. “The Boones Creek school will not be finished until fall 2019,” Stanton said, “but programmatically, we have to move forward before the doors open.
“So we will await the new people,” Stanton said, adding, “I am a little disappointed, but there was no way of knowing about some of these transitions ahead of time.”
PAX includes representatives from both school systems and ETSU. Stanton said, “We have some mighty good people involved in this effort, and this is not over. It has just been delayed.”
Next week: How two new high schools are to be paid for, and the role of teachers as classroom technicians.
*Latin for “Rest in peace.”