By Scott Robertson
The decision-making body and the funding body for the Washington County school system are ready to address facilities needs and construction costs for the already-approved Washington Way plan, in addition to technology needs for the schools. And this time, they’ll be working within the existing framework of county government.
Members of the Washington County School Board and the Washington County Commission are scheduled to come together in a school-construction-related workshop Thursday at 4 p.m. at the school system’s central office in Jonesborough. The workshop is not a continuation of the now-defunct task force that had been called last month to perform a similar function. Rather, the workshop includes the school board and the commission’s Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Committee. The county budget director, the county mayor and the chairman of the Budget Committee are expected to be in attendance at the open meeting, ready to provide pertinent information regarding available funds.
While many of the players in the room remain the same as the membership of the now defunct task force, there will be more priorities discussed than just school construction, and there will be greater representation from both the school board and the commission sides, Kimber Halliburton, director of schools, said.
“When I made a recommendation for more funding for audio (at the Nov. 3 HEW meeting), the HEW Committee asked that the board prioritize what their wishes are. So this workshop is the first step to do that.”
The task force had been comprised of only half the school board and members of the county commission’s Budget Committee. This workshop will include the entire school board as well as members from both the HEW and Budget Committees. In addition, it is an open meeting (as was the task force meeting).
Halliburton said she hopes the board and the commission will all be on the same page after the workshop, with the board having heard from the commission about what funds are available in what time frame and the commission having heard from the board what the priorities are for those funds, and in what order. “That is our goal,” Halliburton said. “The HEW Committee asked that I go back and work with the mayor (Dan Eldridge), Mr. (Mitch) Meredith (the county finance and budget director) and Mr. Grandy (the Budget Committee chair) and just determine what is the level of funding for all these projects as a beginning state. So that’s what that workshop will be about.”
Halliburton has already had those discussions with Eldridge, Grandy and Meredith, so she anticipates no surprises at the workshop.
“The commissioners will talk about the amount of funding versus what we want to do so that the board can prioritize what their wishes are and have more information about the funding sources,” Halliburton said. “We didn’t talk about specific dollar amounts. We just talked about an estimate of what each item would cost.”
The board has already voted for the entire Washington Way plan, a series of construction and renovation projects Halliburton brought forth late this summer. It includes a new K-8 school for Boones Creek, renovations to Jonesborough including an academic magnet high school, and the transformation of the existing Boones Creek Elementary School into a CTE (career and technical education) high school. In addition to construction and renovation, there will also be costs associated with new technology upgrades, Halliburton said. “So the school board is onboard with all of those, but they are also very savvy people who understand there might not be funding to do every bit of it in year one or year two. So that’s what this workshop is about – to present several different ideas in terms of funding and timelines. It will be up to the board to decide those priorities.”
In multiple previous meetings the school board and the county commission have both stated support for the Boones Creek K-8 to be the first project in the Washington Way plan to be funded and built. “We’ve entered into contracts and started doing work on the land,” Halliburton said. “(Architect) Tony Street has already surveyed the property. He’s done drill borings of the property. And we have done without an up-to-date school for so long, it’s just time. I think the board and I would unanimously agree that’s our top priority.”
Beyond that, Halliburton said, she hopes the funds and desire will both be in place Thursday to begin work on a second project at the same time. “I certainly would like to see the magnet get started as soon as possible because we do have vacant classrooms in that (Jonesborough) building. Capacity of that building is 500 students and we only have 393 students. So when you have vacant classrooms, you can start a renovation project while students are on property. I’ve been through those before, by the way (during her time as an administrator in Middle Tennessee prior to accepting the Washington County job this summer).”
The final decision on prioritization and timing will be the board’s, Halliburton was quick to point out. “That’s what we will honor. I just think giving the board a menu of, ‘Here’s what we have and here’s what you want to do,’ gives the board a chance to decide how to make that work within that funding base.”
Halliburton said she hopes the workshop will allow the bodies to find savings opportunities in whatever projects the board chooses to prioritize. “The board has big dreams for our school system,” she said. “I have big dreams. But we want to be excellent stewards for the taxpayers. We want to ask, as we look at each project, ‘Is there anything on project No. 1 that we can do to save money to invest into project No. 2?’ however the board decides those projects should be prioritized.”